Paedocommunion (3): when proper discernment requires no discernment...

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(This is the third in a series opposing paedocommunion, a practice started by some Reformed parents a few years ago in which parents require their infants and toddlers to participate in the Lord's Supper. Here are the first and second in this series.) 

melina take communion.jpgAs stated in the previous post in this series, Jeff Meyers's novel exegesis of 1 Corinthians 11 subscribed to by paedocommunionists leaves them convinced that, when the rest of the Covenant community is partaking of the Lord's Supper, regardless of age, for a member of the Covenant community to abstain is sin. Those who refuse to commune with the rest of the covenant community have failed to discern the body. In fact, Meyers demands that orthodox Presbyterians examine themselves by this rule coming out of his exegesis. As he sees it, the historic Presbyterian and Reformed church's requirement that all who partake of the Lord’s Supper must be able to discern the body is proof the historic Presbyterian and Reformed church has failed to discern the body, and thus they are guilty of breaking apart the Church's unity—the sin of schism.

Yet, when we examine the range of practices among paedocommunionists, particularly with regard to “discerning the body" around the Lord's Table, it is clear this is no united group holding to the same doctrine and practice. Rather, paedocommunionists are split into two camps: first, there are those who require no discernment at all from the Covenant child; and second, there are those who demand the Covenant child has enough discernment to recognize he is part of the body. Even within these two camps, though, there is inconsistency of belief and practice.

In this post, we'll focus on the first of the two groups—those who require no discernment at all from the Covenant child...

Among no-discernment paedocommunionists, Trinitarian baptism is the sole qualification for participation in the Lord’s Supper, yet when we look more closely, we'll see it is not so. Even this non-discernment group is divided, with one side withholding communion until their child eats bread at home, and the second side giving the elements of bread and wine from the moment of baptism without regard to their child's eating habits outside worship.

In this second side, some dip their finger into the wine and place their finger in their child's mouth while others claim their child partakes of the elements by nursing at his mother's breast. (Within the nursing side, we haven't heard anyone discuss the implications for the unity of the body of bottle-fed infants who drink formula.)

These practices may strike the reader as absurd, but such mental gymnastics are required if there is to be any consistent application of paedocommunionists' principles. If, as they declare, withholding the elements from undiscerning children is harmful to those children; and if Scripture commands that all baptized children be fed the Lord's Supper, warning that their absence is failure to discern the body; what are the parents to do with their very young infants? If they withhold the Lord's Supper from their tender infant, they are doing him great harm. They are also harming the assembled church by breaking the unity between the Covenant community and their infant.

Yet the parent who force-feeds his infant son will find it a real stretch to try to interpret his actions. Regardless of his words, others will recognize his actions as the sacramentalist's superstitious faith in the elements' mystical power. This seems to be the reasoning that created the "through the mother's milk" school. Yet, even within this group, the visible, physical, or incarnational nature of the table fellowship suffers because the child's participation is invisible. Regardless of whether the claim is that the child communes when the mother eats and drinks, or later when the child nurses, the child's participation cannot be any visible statement of the unity of the body. In other words, participation through the mother's milk is no participation at all. It’s called “nursing,” and although nursing is physically and emotionally beneficial to the infant, trying to shoehorn sacramental efficacy into the mother nursing her infant is mere superstition.

But now, a question: since the historic church has only required one of the infant's parents to be a believer for the infant to be baptized, what is to be done with the infant whose father is a believer but whose mother is not? Contrary to 1 Corinthians 7:14, is this father's infant rendered unholy by his wife's failure to commune? Is it not a sin against the unity of the body for the one who is made federally holy by virtue of his father's faith to be given his own mother's milk when it lacks the bread and wine? Would it not be better to find a Covenant mother who will serve as a wet-nurse to this infant each Lord's Day than to keep this child home at his mother's breast, thereby denying him the grace of the Supper and violating the body's unity?

On the other hand, if the argument is made that all such questions are ridiculous because Covenant infants do truly commune without partaking of the elements physically, one struggles to see why paedocommunion is necessary.

But back to the arguments...

Though this no-discernment group is engaged in superstitious practices, at least they have the benefit of being consistent in their adherence to the necessity of unity of participation in the Covenant meal. If being baptized requires participation in the Lord's Supper, and if discernment is not necessary for participation in the Lord's Supper, then it is unacceptable for there to be any delay for any reason. The Covenant infant should be fed the Covenant meal immediately following his being marked with the Covenant sign of initiation.

Those who deny any need of discernment on the part of the infant or child, yet wait until the infant or child is eating bread at home before requiring him to eat and drink at the Lord’s Table, are inconsistent. But if you were to ask the child's father and mother why they are delaying allowing their child to participate in the Covenant meal, their only explanation would be that requiring their child to eat and drink at church when he isn't eating and drinking at home is not “natural." They would then talk about children under the Old Covenant not having eaten the Passover Meal until they had matured and were physically capable of doing so. This sounds reasonable until we examine the reason carefully. Then we realize this explanation given by the paedocommunionist establishes the necessity of discernment for participation in the Lord's Supper.

To start with, no-discernment paedocommunionists who delay their infant's participation after he has been baptized demonstrate their agreement with the historic Reformed church—that the Lord's Supper is neither beneficial nor necessary until the infant reaches a certain level of maturity. But what sort of maturity is required? And this requirement of maturity: is this not consistent with the Old Testament practice of the Passover Meal? Children did not participate until they reached a certain level of maturity.

Proponents of paedocommunion assert that this is proof that we should follow the same pattern with the Lord's Supper as the Children of Israel followed with the Passover Meal. They have invented a name for their practice: it is “natural meal” communion. Yet this ignores the explicit teaching of the Apostle Paul that the nature of the meal has changed from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant. This is proven by his command, “If anyone is hungry, let him eat at home” (1 Corinthians 11:34). This command demonstrates the New Covenant meal's discontinuity with the Old Covenant meal in two ways: first, physical sustenance is no longer of the essence of the meal; and second, New Covenant members are prohibited from satisfying their physical hunger at the New Covenant Table.

The Apostle Paul is explicit in his emphasis on the spiritual nature of the Lord's Supper. No longer is this a physical dinner to fulfill the physical hunger of a physical family. This is why Paul says, “If anyone is hungry, let him eat at home” (1 Cor 11:34). Now, the spiritual nature of the meal moves to the fore. Thus, we will not be surprised to see that the requirement of physical maturity intrinsic to the Old Covenant meal is transformed to a requirement of spiritual maturity intrinsic to the New Covenant meal. Participants no longer must be capable of eating the body. Instead they must “discern" the body.

The physical maturity required of participants in the Old Covenant meal becomes the spiritual maturity required of participants in the New Covenant meal.

When paedocommunionists claim spiritual danger does not exist for communing infants and toddlers partaking of the New Covenant meal, they are wrong. The sacrament of the Lord's Supper is accompanied by warnings of both physical and spiritual danger. Thus, whether he is old or young, the one who eats and drinks unworthily, who does not examine himself, who fails to discern or properly judge the body, and who fails to judge himself, becomes guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. He eats and drinks judgment to himself and is in danger of receiving God's judgment, physically, through weakness, sickness, and death.

Some of the no-discernment paedocommunionists who don't give their infant the elements immediately following baptism may reply, “we delay only for the sake of physical protection, but there is no spiritual danger to the child who is yet unable to discern. That command to 'discern the body' does not apply to him, yet.”

Again, this explanation denies the discontinuity between the meals declared by the Apostle Paul when he commands participants to eat and drink worthily, to examine themselves, to discern the body, and to judge themselves. Their explanation, though, also leads us to the second aspect of discontinuity. Because of the change in the physical meal itself, there is no longer any need for physical maturity in order to participate. Nobody can claim that a drop of wine and a morsel of bread placed on the tongue of a newborn are any danger to the newborn's health. Nor can we claim that this drop of wine and morsel of bread are insufficient to “count” as true communing. As Paul has made clear, this is not a meal for filling our stomachs.

Although delay may seem consistent with the Old Testament practice of children beginning to eat and drink the Passover Meal after they have become mature enough to eat solid food, paedocommunionists still have a problem: when they withhold the Lord's Supper from their infants, doing so is inconsistent with their argument that barring children from the Lord's Table harms the children and causes division in the body. Since, with the New Covenant meal, participation is no threat to the physical well-being of any infant, on what basis does he withhold the elements from his freshly-baptized infant? The only reason the Jews did not have their very newly-circumcised infants participate in the Passover Meal before they turned one year of age is that those infants were not physically capable of eating the meal. But now, this barrier is no longer in place. Give the child a drop of wine and a morsel of bread. Quick, do it now! Why put off until tomorrow (or one or two or three years from now) the good you can do to your little one today?

If the infant is quiet and asleep when the meal is served, surely he can be wakened and fed? Why should he denied every spiritual grace God promises to those who participate in this meal? Surely his father and mother do not want to harm his spiritual wellbeing and the unity of the congregation?

Yet this is the sin committed by paedocommunionists who delay participation until even a single Lord's Day after their infant's baptism. By their own logic, parents and elders who withhold the Lord's Supper from infants are guilty of wrongly discerning the body, and thus bring on themselves the terrible consequences Scripture warns us of in commanding us to discern the body. Do we for a moment believe that Jesus would have refused to bless the tiniest infant brought to him in his mother’s arms? And if not, why on earth would we refuse this blessing when it is entirely within our capacity to give it to our little one?

Either the baptized infant has the right to partake of all the benefits of the New Covenant meal—including the bread and cup and blessing it communicates—or he doesn’t.

Hearing this argument, some of my paedocommunionist brothers and sisters may be convinced, and then seek to be consistent with their theological position by practicing paedocommunion from the first Lord's Day when their little one is baptized. Others will find within themselves a growing aversion to the practices described above (and well they might). Regardless of one's response, the fact remains that those of the no-discernment camp have no basis for delaying their infant's partaking of the Lord's Supper past the moment of his baptism.

Some might respond that they feel no need to harmonize Jeff Meyers's exegesis of 1 Corinthians 11 with their sacramental practice with their infants. They delay the communing of their children simply because they don't want to appear superstitious and be labelled a "sacramentalist." After all, how would a three-week-old infant respond to his father or mother opening his mouth and placing a drop of wine and a morsel of bread on his tongue?

Of course, he'd likely cry, and that would be unseemly.

But why is it unseemly to force the elements on a crying infant when no one has ever objected to a crying infant being baptized?

Regardless of the explanations no-discernment parents give for not communing their infant immediately following baptism, the claim that the baptized infant is not harmed by his lack of participation during his first year or two of life is an admission that Trinitarian Covenant baptism is not the sole requirement for participation in the New Covenant meal. Proper participation in the Lord's Supper requires a spiritual maturity that parallels the physical maturity required for participation in the Old Covenant Passover Meal. Maturity is no new requirement in the New Covenant. The requirement simply changes from physical to spiritual maturity.

Scripture is clear in commanding the one who comes to the Lord's Table to eat and drink worthily, to examine himself, to discern or judge the body rightly, and to judge himself rightly. Sadly, paedocommunionists deny these requirements apply to any child incapable of fulfilling them.

Again, paedocommunionists are split into two camps: first, there are those who require no discernment at all from the Covenant child; and second, there are those who demand the Covenant child has enough discernment to recognize he is part of the body.

In this post, we have focused on those who require no discernment at all from the Covenant child and we have noted that this no-discernment camp is split into two groups. The first group seeks consistency and stoops to superstition to achieve it. The second group gives up consistency by introducing extra-biblical requirements that must be met prior to participation. 

Is there any third group in the no-discernment camp?


The only other option for the paedocommunionist who decides against the no-discernment position is that he embrace discernment of one sort or another. Every option outside the no-discernment camp looks to the child to meet some sort of requirement prior to his participation in the New Covenant meal. Will he delay communing his child until the child shows some desire to participate? Surely he'd want to deny it, but this is nothing more or less than his requirement that his child have a sense of unity with the covenant community. In other words, this paedocommunionist requires spiritual discernment of his child before he will commune that child.

In our next post we will turn our attention to this second camp—those who require their child to discern the body before he partakes of the bread and the wine.



Joseph and his wife, Heidi, have five children, Tate, Eliza Jane, Moses, Fiona and Annabel. He graduated from Vanderbilt University and Clearnote Pastors College. He is currently planting Christ Church in Cincinnati with several other families.