A Pastoral Perspective on Paedo-Communion

By Charles W. Bradley

Hopewell Presbyterian Church

Introduction

The question of the practice of paedo-communion comes up in Reformed circles from time to time. Our fellowship is no exception. The people that raise the question often are very serious, both about their faith and about being consistent in living it out in practice. Answering the position papers that support admitting infants and children to the Lord’s table is not frivolous.

I must admit a natural reluctance to enter this arena for several reasons. Perhaps I should begin by confessing that in my first pastorate, affiliated with another denomination, I practiced paedo communion myself and did it wholeheartedly. It seemed incongruous to me at the time to withhold the sacrament from the family members of believers. As I make this known it occurs to me that at least now that the secret is out, no one can accuse me of being unsympathetic to parents who want every blessing for their children. I am one. I was one. However, my views on this, like my views on many other things formerly held, have changed. After restudying the question, I must now state that I more convinced than ever that participants in the Lord’s supper need to be capable of the full use of the mental powers that come only with the onset of maturity.

I am hesitant to enter into this arena, too, because the older I get the less I think of my own powers in the field of theology. Certainly there are better minds in the church and brighter lights. I wish that there were as many web-sites supporting the confessional position as there are that promote the paedo view. That seems not to be the case, and since people in our flock have asked, I find myself in to position of having to make an attempt at defending the historic creeds on this point.

I am an unwilling participant in the discussion also because it is one that, in my observation, is divisive. Some people holding the paedo view are so passionate for it that, unwittingly perhaps, it becomes a test of fellowship to them. This seems odd to me in a confessional church because we usually view the confessions as the basis of our common bond. To make something extra-confessional a litmus test of orthodoxy or of one’s ability to have fellowship seems like quite a distortion.

What I have decided to do, given my reservations, is not write a comprehensive paper, exhaustively answering the points raised by the paedo brethren in their many writings on the subject. The reason for this is not because I think that their arguments are not worthy of attention or merit. Some of them are quite good, so good that it would take someone of my limited ability and library a long time to deal with them seriatim. I sense that the issue is important to those raising it, and on that basis I want to get something into their hands without further delay and also commit some of the fruit of my own work in the area while it is still fresh in my mind.

What I am going to do then is this: operate on the assumption that the burden of proof rests upon those taking the non-confessional view, and not upon those supporting the standards. Those of us who hold the confessional position need only demonstrate that the arguments and practices of the paedo brethren are not conclusive. This I propose to do by raising objections that to my knowledge are not answered by the paedo men and would need to be thoroughly answered before those of us who hold the confessional view would consider revising our position.

The Problem with Submission to Constituted Authority 

Submission, the more important issue

The theologically minded readers of this paper will immediately object to this first heading as being extraneous to the argument and I would normally quickly agree. However, I put it first for this reason: it is more important than the question of paedo communion itself to those families who are members of a confessional church already because of the possible affect the way the subject is handled in home in front of the children. I think that submission to constituted authority in a humble, God fearing way will have a much greater spiritual impact upon the development of a child than even letting him partake of the supper. I base this upon the principle evident in the confession of the centurion (Mat 8:8-10). This man recognized that Jesus had authority because he saw the marks of submission to a higher authority present in his life. This principle he was already familiar with since it was key to his own leadership as an officer. He had authority to the degree that he walked in submission himself. The same is true of parents. They represent God to their kids to the extent that they themselves walk in obedience.

Let me illustrate how this relates to paedo communion. John and Mary Jones have been reading pro-paedo magazine articles, looking up the references and praying. They come to the conclusion that the paedo communion position is reasonable so they embrace it. Having done so, they talk to an elder or two in their local church and explain their new conviction. For the sake of illustration let’s say that the elders do not see the paedo position as convincing and so are not willing to follow the constitutional method to change the standards of the church. Consequently, they communicate to John and Mary their duty to hold the congregation to the confessional standard, the result of which will be that the Jones children, who are not communicants, will not be allowed to partake of the supper. In response, John gathers his family around the dinner table the next night and explains to his family what he believes as the head of the household, and how that this belief does not touch on a core confessional doctrine, and that he is resolved to see his family defer in their practice to those who are over them in the Lord in humble submission. The result of John’s action will be that even though his children know that dad thinks they ought to sit at the table, they also see dad’s willingness to walk in submission to authority. At each communion season they are reminded (even as older children who have since become communicants) that their dad knows how to submit to authority just like he asks them to submit to him in other matters. These kids have in their dad an object lesson in Christian living. Now consider another hypothetical couple, Marvin and Melissa Mumford. They are persuaded that the paedo position is the way to go from conversations with the Jones’s. However, Marvin is not content at all with the response of the elder’s response. He considers it a cop-out for them to appeal to the book of church order and the confessions. He fumes about their seeming arbitrary use of church power, and does so in front of the family each time they drive to and from worship, especially during the communion season. He raises the issue in most of the conversations he has with the people of the church. He is not happy. Eventually, he starts taking his family to the communion service across town where the toddlers are allowed to partake. Marvin has succeeded in getting the wine and bread into his kid’s bellies, but he has also succeeded in showing his kids that when they don’t like or agree with something, obedience is not necessary. I have exaggerated Marvin’s example, but only to make the underlying principle clear, not because I think anyone would actually go this far.

The obvious objection that will come from the paedo camp will take this form: Rebellion to church authority is warranted when the church deviates from Scripture. Parents may cite the higher authority of Christ in murmuring against the established position. And I do not essentially disagree with the principle. However, be very careful in application! When it comes to doctrinal issues, one has to be careful where one draws the line. For myself, I could not appeal to the higher authority of Christ on something that was not either an explicit command or inference in the moral law or not a doctrinal issue covered in the apostle’s creed. We need to be careful about the kind of issues that we pull the trigger of appealing to Christ on. I think the paedo argument has a certain logical appeal on the ground of covenantal theology, but it seems greatly lacking in exegetical warrant. In essence, it appears quite backward for an issue that would end in an appeal to Christ’s higher authority.

Paedo-Communion: Often a test of fellowship.

Sometimes the paedo question becomes a secondary test of fellowship by those who embrace it. For them, it is not enough for a church to be orthodox in confessional matters and consistent in application of them. If indulgences are not made, then they cry that their children have been wrongly excommunicated while they search for a fellowship that will accommodate them, going even so far sometimes as to serve the sacraments as home. In solving one problem –getting the sacrament to their kids – they create another one -discounting the visible church and negating its ministry. The cost of serving up the sacramental meal when it becomes the test of fellowship can be higher than originally expected. Again, caution is advised.

The Problem with Passover Equivalency.

Proponents of paedo communion see a general equivalency and expansion between Passover and the Lord’s Supper.

We now turn to the more objective issues relating to paedo communion. A lot of the argument for the paedo position rests on the assumption that there is a direct transfer of the covenantal aspects of the Passover to the Lord’s supper. It seems so logical on this basis that if the whole household partook of the former then the whole household ought to be included in the latter. Proponents bring the relation between circumcision and baptism into the argument to augment their point, reasoning that if we baptize infants on the basis of eight day circumcision, then we ought also to include all of our kids at the Lord’s table. This seems reasonable enough, especially when the expansion that takes place under the new covenant is seen in baptism. (By expansion, Steven Schlei, for instance, argues correctly that not just males are to be baptized, but also females). If expansion occurs between the old and new covenants, then surely all kids should be welcome at the table. These arguments a both lucid and logical. The problem is that they are not exegetically demonstrable.

The link between Passover and the Lord’s Supper is not that close.

I think there is enough evidence in Scripture to at least call into question the fundamental assumption of the proponents of the paedo position: that there is a general equivalency (and expansion) between the Passover and the Lord’s supper. Let me say immediately that they are indeed related. The language of Passover abounds in the synoptic record of the first supper. No question about it. However, what does this language signify? General equivalence? Hardly.

For one thing, Christ did not institute the Lord’s Supper on the actual Passover. How do we know? Well, we know logically that he couldn’t fulfill being the Passover Lamb and at the same time be with the disciples in the upper room partaking of the meal. He became the Passover sacrifice the day after he instituted the supper. He simply could not be in two places at once, eating the Passover and being the fulfillment of the Lamb. On this point note carefully that only bread and wine are mentioned as being present on the table during the supper. Now it is true that Jesus ordered his disciples to make ready the upper room for the Passover. This he had to do to meet the rigor of ceremonial law, but the meal he ate with the disciples could, at best, only have been a meal in preparation for the Passover which was to follow. Consider carefully what John, writing his gospel to augment the information contained in the antecedent synoptics says about the chronology of the supper and Christ’s death: Jesus died at the time the Passover lambs were being offered at the temple — John 13:1; 18:28; 19:14, 31, 42. The Passover and the Supper are not synonymous.

Further, there is debate as to how some of the references in the synoptics are to be understood. For instance, some scholars view Luke 22:15-16 as an unfulfilled wish on the part of Jesus, as the paraphrase by Burkitt demonstrates,

Near as this Passover is, and much as I have longed to celebrate it with you, it is not so to be; for I shall eat it; within the next twenty-four hours the enemy will have done his worst, and the next Passover I shall eat with you will be the Messianic feast. (Journal of Theological Studies, ix, 1908, pp.569; Worship in the Early Church, R. P. Martin, Eerdmans, 1964, p.112)

If the text is taken in the sense of this paraphrase, then the correlation of practice between the Passover and the supper is weakened significantly. At this point I am not ready to endorse this paraphrase, but only cite it to show that there is room for doubt that Passover equals supper.

That the meal was eaten as a preparation can be seen in two applications. First the Lord may have eaten this meal as a routine part of his minstiry in preparation for Sabbaths generally. Historical data suggests that it was a common practice at the time for a rabbi to gather his disciples around him for a meal in preparation for the Sabbath day. Bread and wine were on the table during these meals, which are referred to historically as the Kiddush. It is obvious that Jesus also uses the language of preparation during the meal, perhaps now with new force, as he attempts to get his disciples to realize that this was the last of their meals together. No doubt the Lord makes so many references to Passover during the last supper in order to at least get the disciples to see in retrospect that in his death, he himself fulfills the Passover. While the implications of this are many, one thing should be clear, that the broad assumption that Passover and the supper are the same thing only with slight covenantal amplifications should not be rushed into without careful study. I remain to be convinced that the pro paedo men have made this point sufficiently clear enough to warrant their conclusions.

Transference of essential unity.

At this point I would expect the pro paedo scholars to object that I have dealt only with practice and not with the significance behind the ritual of the Passover. This I will now attempt to do.

The Passover was instituted previous to a geographical move on the part of God’s people. All of those gathered around the table on the night were going to leave Egypt without exception. The bread on the table symbolized the unity of the household according to at least some commentators. They make this assertion because of Paul’s application in 1 Co 10:15,16. The essential unity that existed around the Passover table was that of family. No father was going to leave any of his children behind in Egypt, even if for some reason a child didn’t want to go. The family was to be together and remain together under the blood. They all would move together as a unit. So well did this work out that as Israel left Egypt to meet at the staging area at Succoth, they gave the appearance of being a well trained army. The unity in Passover is household. I hear the paedo adherents cheering at this point.!

However, while Paul recognizes the essential unity that existed in the Passover as that of family: he applies it to the church. This he does without demolishing or denigrating the family. What he does do however, is point out that the familial unity of Passover is now applied to the spiritual unity of the Church. No longer can a father enforce the terms of Passover upon his children, making them all follow him to a new address. In the New Covenant, Dad can baptize his infants, raise his kids on Scripture and in the church, bathe them with prayer and meet all of his covenantal obligations as the head of the house before God. One thing he cannot do, however, is make his child regenerate. The essential unity in the New Covenant is no longer that of the home, although the home remains extremely important and retains many covenantal aspects. The essential unity is today to be found in the professing church. I assert that the Lord’s supper is the demonstration of this new unity and therefore only for professing Christians. Jesus himself pointed out that this new unity was to be expected:

KJV Mark 10:29 And Jesus answered and said, Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my sake, and the gospel’s, 30 But he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; and in the world to come eternal life.

KJV Mark 13:12 Now the brother shall betray the brother to death, and the father the son; and children shall rise up against their parents, and shall cause them to be put to death.

Paul demonstrates its realization in the church. On this basis it is my contention that the profession of faith is the ground of the unity that was typical in the Passover and realized in the supper. Therefore, only communicants are to partake of the Lord’s table. Closer relationships exist in the fellowship of the Lord’s table than can be found around the family dinner table. (The case of a whole family being professing Christians and communicants excepted.)

The difference between baptism and the Lord’s supper.

By now paedo adherents are objecting, “But what about baptism?” Let me say first of all that baptism and circumcision are much more fully treated in Scripture, especially the New Testament than Passover. This is because a man carried his circumcision with him all the time. It was an easy mark to see and consequently, it became a point of contention and division. What the apostles concluded at the Jerusalem Council and during the following years is that circumcision and baptism correspond and that there were two aspects of both:1. The inward reality and, 2. The outer, visible ceremony. In addition they realized that the covenantal obligation for heads of households to circumcise their sons was retained in the New Covenant and transferred to the rite of baptism, and expanded to include daughters.

Is it right to assume the same thing for the supper? I don’t think so.

For one thing, there is a lot less biblical information to work with. For another thing, I think that the covenantal aspects not only do not correspond, between the two sacraments (Baptism and the Supper) but that they correlate in an opposite way. Let me explain: While there is perhaps a broadening of the scope in application from circumcision to baptism, as described above — baptism included girls — I would argue that the converse is true from Passover to communion, that the supper is more restricted than the Passover.

Visually the relationship would look like this:

  • Circumcision (male Hebrews only) < baptism (all infants of all believers)
  • Passover (the family) > communion (the professing church made up of parts of families).

Why? Because the Passover is primarily typical, pointing to Christ. More importantly there are not the biblical warrants present for expansion as there are for circumcision — baptism. As I have attempted to show, there IS biblical data for a constricted application from Passover to the supper based on the new unit of essential unity. We must remember that the Passover was done in typical ANTICIPATION while the communion is observed in APPLICATION of the realization of what was previously typified. Therefore, there is a correspondingly higher level of responsibility and accountability resident upon participants in the supper.

The Problem with the Words of Institution.

The words of institution used in the supper call for cognitive response that infants and young children are incapable of rendering.

When instituting the supper Jesus said, This, my body; this do in remembrance of me. (Luke 22:19; 1Co 11:24). The latter part of this verse and the repetitive nature of the Passover and supper mean different things to different people. The Passover to some the annual observance was meant to commemorate something that happened years before. The Passover in this sense was a sort of national holiday, like we would observe VE day to commemorate the allied victory in Europe. To others, the Passover was to be a full orbed re-creation of the scene of the original Passover, so as to re-live the drama of that singular night. Still, to others, the Passover was a pledge of future deliverance that would come as Messiah brought a return to political peace and prosperity to the political landscape. Similarly, the Lord’s supper is multifaceted in its meaning as it is observed. In one sense it is a memorial, in other sense an anticipation, in yet another, a covenantal meal and so on. The two share this similarity. No matter how you understand what happens in the supper, everyone must acknowledge that the language of institution that Jesus uses in the supper call forth a definite series of cognitive responses from participants. There is the recognition of the body, whether this means the body of Christ in the Church as Paul seems to indicate or the body in the bread it matters not. There is the remembrance of Christ and his passion that is to be evoked by the participant and finally the response of taking and eating in pledge and participation. This is not true of the law regulating Passover, where the implication is that all are to eat and then when the children come to years and have questions, they are to be instructed. The adherents of paedo communion have not sufficiently demonstrated how infants and small children obey the words of institution, or even that they are capable of doing so. Because the burden of proof falls upon them, they cannot remain silent on this point if they expect the church to revise its confession and adopt their position into practice.

It goes without saying that appeal to baptism does not remove the difficulty here. The cognitive issues in infant baptism do not fall to the infant until he comes to years and to faith. Reformed tradition teaches him at that point to improve his baptism through mental excercises upon its meaning and significance. However, at the time when the rite is applied, the active participants are the parents, the church and the minister. The infant is passive because of what baptism signifies: all that God does in the regeneration of the heart. Conversely, the supper calls for cognitive participation from the onset, because of what it signifies: not initiation, but continuation in the covenantal provisions made by Christ. This continuance calls for the mind of the participant to be fully engaged in what the elements represent.

The Problem of Efficacy.

The Paedo position would force us to embrace a Roman Catholic or Lutheran understanding of how the sacrament conveys grace.

One of the biggest problems that I have with the paedo communion position is in the area of how grace is conferred in the sacrament if we adopt their position. Admittedly, my reading among proponents of the paedo position is limited, but I have never seen anyone address the question of how grace is conferred in the paedo communion model. It seems to me that for anyone coming from the Reformed perspective this ought to be a paramount concern. After all, people were burned at the stake during the English Reformation for the Reformed view of the sacrament. The proponents of paedo communion simply MUST answer the question of how grace is conferred in their new system before they are entitled to full credibility. Why? Because to take cognition out of the sacramental picture necessitates a shift in understanding as to how the sacrament serves as a means of grace. At best they are left with the Lutheran view; at worst the Roman. Either grace has to be inherent to the physical element; OR we are left with a rite that confers no grace at all or that can be left off with no harm. All of these are an abhorrence to the Reformed understanding of grace in the sacraments.

Reformed theologians virtually all hold that the means of grace require faith and a knowledgeable response to the signs to be effeccacious. To give the sacrament to babies and small children is to deny this basic requirement. The physical elements portray the written and preached word to the senses. This requires the mind to be engaged by them and capable of understanding propositional truths represented in them. I don’t see how that the understanding of what happens in the sacrament in the paedo scheme can become any more than Lutheran — that the bread and wine serve as spiritual vitamin pills with something in them that is of benefit apart from understanding or, conversely, any less than Roman Catholic view where grace comes in the doing – ex opera operato.

The paedo men, again, cannot cite infant baptism as a precedent because the correlation between the supper and baptism are not close enough. Baptism is the rite of initiation and entrance into the church. It is never repeated. It serves as a seal to mark the what God does in regeneration and also marks out the covenant child’s place in the covenant community that exists on the basis of the parent’s faith. The supper is the rite of continuance, oft repeated, that calls for full cognitive participation on the basis of the biblical directives for its administration.

Conclusion

The burden of proof for the paedo position rests on those seeking to advance it.

I have attempted to show that the issue is not settled. It cannot be until all of the questions have been satisfactorily answered. I think that, given what I have read so far, that paedo communion appeals to logic within the covenantal framework, but still has to answer theological and exegetical questions that have been unaddressed or unanswered. As when any deviation in the framework of our theology and pratice, caution is advised until the difficulties are cleared away. I am skeptical that they can be on any grounds, particularly on the important exegetical ones.

This little paper will certainly not be the last word, but I hope it will serve at least to show some of the reasons why I remain unconvinced that babies and small children belong as participants at the Lord’s table, Messrs. Wilkins and Schlei notwithstanding.

Charles W. Bradley

Hopewell Presbyterian Church

Culleoka, TN

14 June 2000

® 2000 Hopewell Presbyterian Church

This paper may not be reproduced without permission of the author.