Paedocommunion (6): infantile desires are neither discernment nor a confession of faith...

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(This is the sixth in a series opposing paedocommunion, a practice started by some Reformed parents a few years ago in which they require their infants and toddlers to participate in the Lord's supper. Here are the firstsecondthirdfourth, and fifth in this series. For more on this subject, see the "Paedocommunion" tag.) 

Previously, we saw that those who have recently begun promoting paedocommunion are divided over the key matter of the proper recipients of the Lord’s Supper. One side we will call "Side A" claims both New Covenant sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s supper, must be administered to newborn babies. Because the child is of genetic descent from a covenant family, he is to be baptized and communed as soon as he is born.

Those we will call "Side B" claim baptism should be administered to the newborn baby, but not the Lord’s supper. In this view, some minimal confession of faith or discernment is required of every participant, so fathers are prohibited from communing their newborn infants.1

Both Side A and Side B say they believe in “paedocommunion,” but this is misleading. “Paedobaptist” has always referred to those who baptize newborns, whereas “paedocommunionist” sometimes refers to those who commune newborns and other times to those who oppose communing newborns.

As we have said before, the Side A paedocommunionist who communes newborns is a whole different breed of cat from the Side B paedocommunionist who refuses to commune newborns...

Because Side A paedocommunionists deny there are any qualifications for a child’s participation in the Lord’s supper, the historic Protestant church simply forbids their practice. Side B proponents, though, are much closer to the historic Protestant church because they agree the participant must fulfill some qualifications in order to partake with us. Only the nature of the qualifications spelled out by 1Corinthians 11 are under debate.

In this post, we will turn our attention to Side B. Typically, the qualifications they require consist merely of the child “being able to tell he is part of the group.” This view presents several problems.

First, if we observe Side B's actual practice, it’s obvious they never actually set the qualifying bar that low. They all require something more than that the child merely be "able to tell he is a part of the group.” Second, whatever their stated and unstated qualifications are, it is obvious to observers that their feet and the feet of their children are on a slippery path down into (ex opere operato) sacramentalism.

Regarding the first problem, it’s noteworthy that Side B paedocommunionists don't commune their children until somewhere between a year-and-a-half and two years of age. They tell us they are delaying communing their child until he gives some evidence of being “able to tell he is a part of the group," yet any parent will testify that children can tell they are part of a group at a much younger age. Even when Side B paedocommunionists add the additional requirement that the child demonstrate a desire to participate in the group's meal, eighteen months is much too late.

Take my youngest daughter, Fiona, for example. She demonstrated her understanding of being part of a group when she was barely two months old. If we left Fiona on the floor in the living room when we went into the dining room for dinner, she cried until we relented and brought her into the dining room with us. We were only ten feet away. She could still see all of us. She had been happy on the floor of the living room as long as we remained there with her. Yet when we moved into the dining room, she wanted to move there with us. She wanted to be seated at the table with us. She had no problem discerning her group identity even at two months of age, and her desire to eat what we were eating came only a short time later.

At five months, Fiona is not unique in reaching—lunging, even—for the plate that passes just outside her reach. As I bring food to my mouth, she tries to grab it. She watches me chew and, quite unconsciously, moves her mouth in a chewing motion with me.

So again, children recognize their membership in a group and demonstrate their desire to participate with that group much earlier than eighteen months. Much much earlier.

Why then do Side B paedocommunionists wait until eighteen months to give their child the elements of the Lord's supper? What else are they waiting for? There must be some additional requirement, yet I have never heard it stated by anyone on Side B. All they ever speak of is group identification and the expressed desire to join the group at the table.

Take Pastor Doug Wilson, for instance; he famously claims his grandson’s sense of group identification and his desire to join in the meal by describing his sign language during worship. One week during the Lord’s supper, his grandson placed his hand on his head and patted his stomach. According to Pastor Wilson, this sign language proves his grandson's group identification and his desire to eat with the others. How could anyone refuse to commune him?

Is Pastor Wilson claiming the sign language as the qualification his grandson fulfilled?

No, the sign language didn’t qualify the grandson, but the faith or discernment his sign language proved. Yet, again, if a toddler should be communed as soon as he identifies with the group and desires to join in the group's meal, parents of Side B children should begin communing their children a very long time before they do, and no later than four or five months.

So again, why the delay?

Maybe these parents delay their child’s first communion because of an unconscious discomfort with the reductionist approach to discernment their system is built on? They feel uncomfortable claiming a discernment for a child who does not communicate that discernment using signs or words?

If so, this represents some hope for the return of Side B paedocommunionists to the doctrinal fold of the historic Protestant church which has always required a real discernment of the body of our Lord. Mere recognition of group membership and a desire to join in the group meal has never been proposed by any Protestant sect as the requirements declared by 1Corinthians 11. A personal confession of faith and discernment of the body of our Lord by the individual admitted to the Lord’s table may not seem like much when his communication of these requirements is made by means of a child’s sign language, but this is some small common ground which we should recognize and seek to expand back towards the Scriptural commands given by the Apostle Paul.

The debate might be joined by deconstructing paedocommunionists’ requirement that the child “be able to tell he is part of the group."

Man is a social creature. Even preterm twins younger than zero months, developmentally, do better when they aren’t separated from each other. This demonstrates something fundamental about human nature: man does not want to be alone.

Look at the Danish monster, Anders Breivik. His hatred of his fellow man was so terrible that he shot and killed 77 adults and children, injuring another 300. Now he’s serving a prison sentence of just over twenty years and he’s confined to a cell block that has three cells. One he uses for living, one for study, and one for exercise. He has a computer connected to the internet, his own television, and a PlayStation. He can walk in the yard when he wants, cook his own food, and do his laundry, but he sued Denmark claiming the absence of any human companionship in his cell block violated the European Convention on Human Rights. An Oslo district court found in his favor, ruling that forcing Breivik to live alone constituted inhuman and degrading treatment.

The desire to belong starts in the womb. It is innate. It is good. But it is not holy, per se. Children grow up, and as adults at the Lord's table it's quite predictable they will say to themselves: "I’m here in this group of people who are eating. I don’t want to be left out. I want some, too." If this adult is a covenant child who was raised in a Side B church, he will also say to himself: "I've always eaten. If it wasn’t wrong when I was young, why is it wrong now that I am an adult." 

In other words, on Side B's own principles, whatever constitutes discernment for the covenant child of eighteen months must also be sufficient for the covenant child who is ten, twenty, thirty, or seventy-five years old. No matter his age, he has been baptized and his desire to be included in the larger group must be sufficient. Side B paedocommunionists declare that, after many centuries of bad exegesis of 1Corinthians 11, they have finally discovered its proper exegesis, and the sum total of what God there requires is that the one admitted to the Lord’s supper is "able to tell he is part of the group."

Consider the covenant child who is seventy-five years old, hasn't been to church in five decades, and has never confessed any personal faith or repentance. If he attends a Lord's Day service, he may sit and shed tears as he hears the hymns, prayers, Scripture, and preaching of his infancy and childhood. When the Lord's supper is celebrated, quite naturally he will want to partake of the unity of the body—the unity he’s never had any problem discerning as Side B paedocommunionists require it. So precisely why is this discernment not sufficient for the seventy-five year old? He fulfills what their exegesis limits the text to, so why should he not be allowed—indeed, required—to partake?

Of course, down through five centuries of sacramentology and pastoral care, the Protestant church has never taught that this is all that 1Corinthians 11 requires of us, whether the one under discussion is eighteen months or seventy-five years old.

Here I expect a couple objections. Some will say that the discernment we expect of children is simply the seed form of a greater discernment that must be required with greater maturity.

Is this not self-evidently true? We must adjust our expectations based on the ability of the person in view. Yet consider again that the paedocommunionist who delays communing his child until that child is 18 months has already admitted there is some minimal level of spiritual maturity that must be attained before admission to the Lord’s supper. It can't be physical maturity the paedocommunionist seeks because, again, the infant has been physically capable of being communed long before eighteen months of age.

But to return to the covenant child who is seventy-five years old: the paedocommunionist will claim that, despite being physically present, if the seventy-five year old partook of the meal, he would do so recognizing that, although he is genetically descended from covenant parents, he does not actually belong to the group, spiritually. As Scripture says, all Israel is not Israel. Circumcised foreskins are not the circumcised hearts required by God for entry into His Kingdom and glory.

If the Side B paedocommunionist objects to this seventy-five year old's participation in the Lord’s supper, his objection highlights the inconsistency of Side B’s reduction of discernment to innate human instincts. If these human instincts of membership and communal feeding are all that’s required of an eighteen-month-old-toddler, when do those requirements change, and why? What is the principle that causes discerning the body to mean one thing at one age and something entirely different at another age? 

As life goes on, the absurdly minimalistic exegesis of the commands of 1Corinthians 11 become disastrous, and soon those holding this view will be heard engaging in the sort of superstitious talk and actions characteristic of Roman Catholic sacramentology.

When Side B men exegete 1Corinthians 11 in such a way that they tell themselves and their children that all God requires for the Lord’s supper is genetic descent and family identification, their doctrine of the Lord’s supper has left the Reformers behind and is no longer Protestant. Their table exhortations decay into forever and only come, come, come, and their table warnings are gone! Having embraced the paedocommunionist error, the only thing that matters to them now is that every last body eats and drinks—TOGETHER!

No wonder the historic Protestant and Reformed doctrine that the Word of God must precede the sacrament is forgotten.

You know the expression, “the proof is in the pudding?” Let me recount two situations described by paedocommunionist pastors.

First, one well-known paedocommunionist pastor who formerly served in the Presbyterian Church in America before transferring into the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches told us of the nursery workers of his congregation waiting until the end of the worship service when the Lord’s supper was administered, then bringing the children into the service to partake of the Lord’s supper. Neither these children nor their caretakers had been under the ministry of the Word, yet they were determined not to miss the sacrament. The nursery workers desired that they and their charges be communed, so after the sermon was completed, they entered the sanctuary to eat and drink.

The senior pastor confessed this was a failure and told us he had corrected the caregivers. Neither they nor the children could commune at the Lord’s table if they had not been present during the preaching of God’s Word. This is, of course, the proper response. Yet it disturbed us that, during our conversation, he gave no indication he understood this grave error was only natural given his doctrine of the Lord’s supper.

If the discernment required of participants is only group identification and the desire to eat and drink, what’s wrong with the nursery workers bringing the children into the sanctuary to commune? Say, for instance, the nursery workers had entered the sanctuary only to commune the infants and toddlers they had been caring for, and not themselves, would the pastor still have objected? Why are the adults required to have the proclamation of God’s Word in tandem with the Lord’s Supper, but not the little ones? And if that’s, indeed, the standard of Side B paedocommunionism, at what age does that standard change, and why? Should the little ones in the nursery be communed without the sermon at a year and a half, but not two years old? At two, but not three years old? At three and four, but not five? At five and six, but not seven? At eleven and twelve, but not thirteen years old? And if so, is this not simply the resurrection of the old Baptist age of accountability error?

To put it bluntly, once Side B paedocommunionists adopt an exegesis of 1Corinthians 11 that is suited to their communing of eighteen month old toddlers, it’s inevitable that this same exegesis drives them towards commanding everyone present to come eat and drink. You’re present among the body of Christ, you recognize that body, you desire to join with that body in its family meal, so come. It’s the feeding of the five thousand all over again: if you’re here and hungry, eat and drink! In fact, eating and drinking is the faith that is required of you—not faith in Jesus Christ and repentance toward sin. Come, come, come! And, of course, this is precisely the sacramental liturgical practice that is pervasive across Side B and Side A worship.

Now then, we turn to our second example. A well-known Side B paedocommunionist pastor had a parishioner who was not able to attend worship for a time. The pastor said the elders of the congregation remedied the problem by sending a couple seminary students from the congregation to serve the man the Lord’s supper privately, later in the week. His point was not his doctrine of the Lord’s supper, but the compassion of the elders in providing specialized spiritual care for this man who was not able to join the people of God in worship each Lord’s day. Yet the only compassionate care he spoke of was that the elders sent a couple seminary students to administer the Lord’s supper. 

Why then did Calvin and his fellow reformers, as well as all Protestant and Reformed fathers down through history, prohibit the Lord’s supper from being administered without being preceded by the preaching of the Word? And if they prohibited Wordless communing, why did this pastor allow it?

Two points here: first, this pastor might say he only forgot the preaching of God’s Word; that the seminary students did that, too, but he neglected to mention it. If so, his neglect says a lot about his sacramentology. Anyone can see that the pastor who is zealous to tell how his elders have provided the Lord’s supper for this man while not mentioning that he was provided the preaching of God's Word is thereby demonstrating his thinking concerning the relative importance of these two components of worship.

And of course, that’s precisely what the historic Protestant and Reformed church would expect of pastors and elders who have turned against the church’s historic requirement that 1Corinthians 11’s commands concerning discernment and self-examination be obeyed by every participant in the Lord’s supper.

This explains the constant drone one hears from such paedocommunionists against what they diss as “morbid self-examination.” Truth be told, though, it is not “morbid” self-examination they are opposed to, but any self-examination at all.

So again, when paedocommunionists eviscerate the text of 1Corinthians 11 of any command requiring spiritual discernment other than group identity and a desire to eat and drink with the group, it is impossible for them to avoid falling into sacramentalism, themselves, and leading their flock into that error, also.

This pastor only mentioned the Lord's supper, and not the preaching of the Word, but note also that the men sent by the elders to administer the sacrament were not ordained. Again, we see what a radical departure paedocommunionists have made from Reformed sacramentology. Reformed doctrine prohibits fathers who are not ordained from baptizing their children just as it also prohibits seminary students who are not ordained from administering the Lord’s Supper to their friends‚ even if their elders tell them to do so! The sacraments are not given to fathers and friends for private administration, but to the officers of the body of Christ for public administration. Here too, the casting off of five centuries of Reformed Protestant doctrine concerning the sacraments can only be explained by the growth of ex opere operato sacramentalism.

We have pointed out a number of inconsistencies and errors paedcommunionists fall into once they eviscerate 1Corinthians 11’s commands of any substantive authority or meaning, but what is the heart of their error?

There is no discernment when “come” is separated from “don’t come," when “eat and drink” is separated from “don’t eat or drink," when “yes” is separated from “no.” No man is discerning when his discernment runs only in a positive direction, but solely a positive direction is what paedocommunionists are all about.

Across the entire book of 1Corinthians is the record of the sins that violated the unity of the body of Christ when the church of Corinth gathered in worship and assembled at the Lord’s table. As a congregation, their fellowship around the Lord's table was corrupted by pride, self-promotion, the parading of wealth, incest, the denigration of God’s Apostle—and the list goes on. Read the letter and make a catalog of the many ways the Corinthians failed to discern the unity of the body in the bonds of peace. Violating the Second Table of the Law commanding them to love their neighbors as themselves, the worship of the Corinthians was rejected by God Who sent the Apostle Paul to warn them that their division, their failure to discern the body, was so terrible that God was judging them by making many of them sick and others of them to die.

They were saying "yes” to every desire of their hearts—from pride to incest to assembling together for worship to eating and drinking the Lord's Supper—and thus they were failing to discern the body of Christ. In Corinth every sin was "yes," everyone was in, nothing was no, and no one was out. This is what the Corinthians were condemned for, yet this is what paedocommunionists want and what they claim 1Corinthians 11 requires.

Infants and toddlers are not able to recognize they are part of a group if they lack the ability to recognize some who are physically present are not part of the group spiritually. To limit God's command to discern the body to an infant or toddler giving some slight indication of his fundamental human desire to belong to a larger group in which he is enveloped—whether that group is the Church of Jesus Christ surrounding him in the sanctuary or the family moving from the living room to the dining room for dinner—is to teach our children that the spirit does not matter, but only the flesh. It is to teach our children that God cares about circumcised foreskins, and not circumcised hearts.

Discerning the body is meaningless without discerning who is out as well as who is in. Children who haven't been taught and aren't able to grasp the possibility of being "out" have no real discernment. What they have is a fleshly desire to belong.

* * *

In our next piece, we will deal with the paedocommunionist objection that withholding the elements until our children are able to fulfill the requirements of 1Corinthians 11 is to teach them that they are not a part of the covenant community.

  • 1. There is a third possibility, that those adhering to Side B are only doing so out of deference to their denomination’s prohibition of “paedocommunion.” We will not be interacting with such men since their practice is not according to their convictions and neither can be weighed for consistency with the other. We recognize that, in time, if there are number of such men in, for instance, the Presbyterian Church in America, the absence of accountability within the denomination will allow these men’s true convictions to continue to stretch their practice and it may well come to be seen that no one within the PCA truly believes in Side B. There are simply men with Side A convictions who cloak them behind Side B practice.

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.