Since the sixteenth century, Reformed and Presbyterian churches have not permitted baptized children of believing parents to partake of the Lord’s Supper without previously professing their faith (see Heidelberg Catechism 81; Belgic Confession, Art. 35; Westminster Larger Catechism 177). However, in recent decades, many Reformed denominations have had to respond to advocates of paedocommunion (“child communion”) who have vigorously challenged this consensus.
According to advocates of paedocommunion, the traditional practice of Reformed churches represents a departure from the historic practice of the Christian church. More importantly, paedocommunionists insist that the historic position of the Reformed churches is inconsistent with their doctrine of the covenant. Since the children of believers are members of the covenant community or visible church, they should be admitted to the Lord’s Table to be nourished in the faith and in fellowship with Jesus Christ.
The historical argument for paedocommunion is at best inconclusive. Unlike the significant evidence for the practice of infant baptism in the early church, there is no compelling evidence for the practice of paedocommunion. Though the Eastern church practices paedocommunion to the present day, there is no mention of this practice in the voluminous writings of the early church fathers. In the early third century, Origen expressly stated that children were not given holy communion.1
Whatever the historical evidence for paedocommunion suggests, the more fundamental question is, What do the Scriptures teach about the proper recipients of the Lord’s Supper?
Advocates of paedocommunion often appeal to the Old Testament Passover Feast as a precedent for the admission of covenant children to the Lord’s Supper. Just as covenant children participated in this annual feast and in other covenant meals under the Old Testament economy, so they should be welcomed to participate in the new covenant meal, the Lord’s Supper.
Although the appeal to the analogy of the Passover is a key component of the argument for paedocommunion, it has several significant problems. First, the Deuteronomic instructions regarding the Passover require only males to celebrate this feast annually in the place where the Lord has chosen to place His name (Deut. 16:1–8, 16). In the historic practice of Judaism, male children did not participate in the Passover until the age of thirteen (see Luke 2:41–42). Second, infants and young children are simply incapable of eating and drinking all the elements of the traditional Passover meal (roast lamb, unleavened bread, bitter herbs, and later, the wine or cup of blessing). Third, though the Lord’s Supper was instituted on the occasion of the Passover Feast, it was celebrated as a “new covenant” meal by the nucleus of the New Testament church, Jesus’ disciples. Unlike the Passover, the Lord’s Supper is not a family feast. And fourth, the Lord’s Supper was instituted to commemorate Christ’s atoning death as the fulfillment of all the sacrifices of the Old Testament economy. Even in the words of institution, the traditional “cup of blessing” is said by our Lord to signify “my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:28; see Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20). These words of institution clearly allude to Exodus 24, which recounts how Moses sacrificed young bulls as fellowship offerings before the Lord and in the presence of the seventy elders of Israel.
The Achilles’ heel of the argument for paedocommunion, however, is the teaching of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:17–34. In this passage, the Apostle addresses a particular problem in the Corinthian church and offers general guidelines regarding what is required of those who receive the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. After describing the divisive and unholy conduct of some of the Corinthians (vv. 17–22), the Apostle recalls the Lord’s institution of the Lord’s Supper (vv. 23–26) and thereafter provides instructions regarding a proper preparation for and partaking of Christ by faith in the sacrament (vv. 27–29).
As Calvin observes, the instructions in 1 Corinthians 11 regarding a “worthy” reception of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper are addressed to “whoever” eats the bread and drinks the cup. A proper reception of the sacrament requires:
- that the recipient “examine himself” before coming the table of the Lord (v. 28);
- that the recipient “discern the body” of the Lord (v. 29);
- that the recipient actively eat and drink in the way of faith, remembering and proclaiming the death of Christ until He comes (v. 26).
In the light of the Apostolic instructions given in 1 Corinthians 11, Reformed and Presbyterian churches have rightly insisted that those who are admitted to the Lord’s Table be required to make a credible profession of faith. No one may presume to eat the bread or drink the cup of the Lord without faith, which is “the hand and mouth of our soul” (Belgic Confession Art. 35). Though baptized children of believing parents are members of Christ and His church, they need to be instructed and nurtured in the Word of God in order to prepare them to profess and attest their faith and be admitted to the table of the Lord. As our Lord teaches in His great discourse on the bread of life, those who eat His body and drink His blood must do so in the way of faith (John 6:35–59).
- Homilies on the Book of Judges 6:2.↩