Some time ago, I participated in a debate on this subject, and was asked to argue in favour of the following motion:-
“We believe that it is right and proper for children who are baptised members of the church to be admitted to Holy Communion prior to their confirmation but following suitable preparation and instruction.”
Here’s my argument. (Please bear in mind that the debate took place within an Anglican context).
Specifically, the parish may ask for the bishop’s permission for children to be so admitted, providing that the child has reached the age of seven years; that the child is regularly involved in Christian teaching and attendance at Sunday worship; and that the child has undergone a period of instruction and preparation.
There are a number of arguments that I could mention in support of this motion.
(a) There is the argument from the Old Testament. I could remind you, for example, that baptism and communion are anticipated in the Old Testament by circumcision and the Passover. I could point out that all those who were circumcised were counted as members of the people of God and were qualified to eat the Passover. But I’m not going to mention that, because I’m not convinced that question of the continuity of the OT with the NT can be answered that simply.
(b) There is the argument from Church history. I could tell you that this idea that baptism is for babies, confirmation is for teenagers, and communion is for grown-ups, is really just a historical accident. The fact is that for a long time in many parts of the church, babies were baptised and then confirmed immediately, and would receive communion thereafter. It was only when some parts of the church insisted on confirmation being done by a bishop, and a bishop was not always available, that the two ceremonies started to be split, and then it became assumed that confirmation was a pre-requisite to communion. But I’m not going to say that either, because the accidents of history are no safe guide to Christian belief and practise today.
(c) There is the mystical argument, which says that children should not be excluded from holy communion on the grounds that they cannot understand what is going on, because none of us understands what is going on: the whole thing is an impenetrable mystery.
(d) There is the pragmatic argument, that says that we need to make church as attractive as possible for children; we ought to do everything we can to hang on to them and one of these would be to welcome them to holy communion.
(e) There is the family argument, which says that my little Johnny feels left out when he sees his older brother receive communion, so why shouldn’t he receive it as well?
No, I’m not going to mention any of these things. All the above are weak, if not actually spurious.
My argument is simple, and is as follows: The Church of England, in common with most other branches of the Christian church, believes in the baptism of adult believers and their children. The baptised child is welcomed by the minister with the words, “God has received you by baptism into his church.” The congregation responds, “We welcome you into the Lord’s family. We are members together of the body of Christ; we are children of the same heavenly Father; we are inheritors together of the kingdom of God.” The baptised child becomes a real, though presumptive, or provisional, or probationary member of the Church of Christ. We are used to recognising and nurturing this membership in a number of ways: we put the child under the sound of the Gospel; we put words of faith in its mouth in the songs we get it to sing; we encourage it to be present, and to play an active part in public worship. We treat such a child as a Christian.
However, when it comes to our gathering around the Lord’s Table, and the Lord’s people are invited to ‘draw near with faith’, we say to such a child – a member of the Lord’s family – no, your Christianity is not good enough. You’re not ready yet. You must wait until you can articulate your faith to our satisfaction; you must wait until you are confirmed. And at best we fob them off with a substitute blessing at the communion rail.
Why do we do this? Why are we ready to include children in to other aspects of the life of the worshiping community, but include them out of that act of worship that expresses so simply and clearly the oneness of the people of God? We are evangelicals: we know that a child is a sinner from birth, and that it is superstitious nonsense to suppose that baptism can confer saving grace in and of itself. We believe in the absolute necessity of each individual to come to personal repentance of sins and faith in Christ. We are nervous about allowing people to come to the Lord’s table who shows no signs of being truly converted to Christ. So far so good. Where we go wrong, however, is that we seem to insist on a conversion according to an evangelical formula. The evangelical formula says that conversion must be instantaneous and dateable. What it forgets is that whereas Scripture presents one way of salvation, it describes any number of ways of experiencing it. There is Paul, with his Damascas Road experience. There is Lydia, who moved from being a worshiper of God, to having her heart opened by the Lord to respond to Paul’s message (Acts 16:14). There are the several examples in Acts of whole households coming to Christ. Then there is Timothy, who from infancy had been taught the holy Scriptures, which were able to make him wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (2 Tim 3:15).
Should we not expect – should it not be the norm – that the child of believing parents will be brought up, like Timothy, to know the holy Scriptures, and to grow into an understanding of the way of salvation? There is, probably, no shattering conversion experience, just a growing realisation of the necessity of repentance of sins and of faith in Christ, and growing desire to love and serve him. And such a child, who has been brought into membership of the church by baptism, who regularly meets with the people of God in Sunday worship, and who has reached some level of understanding of the faith in which he has been nurtured, – what possible reasons could we have for refusing such a child from gathering with the rest of the Lord’s people around the Lord’s Table? Such a refusal has much more in common with the fumbling and short-sighted disciples than with the loving and welcoming attitude of the Saviour:-
Mark 10:13-16 People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. 14 When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 15 I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them.
But does not Paul talk about the danger of eating the bread or drinking the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner? Doesn’t he speak of the importance of self-examination before eating the bread and drinking the cup (1 Cor 11:27-30)? Yes. But what makes an adult worthy, yet a child unworthy, to receive communion? If we go back to Corinth, we soon discover that the unworthiness of which Paul spoke had nothing to do with was nothing to do with the limited understanding of youth, but about party-spirit, and greed. The well-to-do were getting to the meal first and eating their fill and even getting drunk, while the poor people came along later and were left hungry. What they lacked was not head-knowledge, but love, humility, and sincerity – and do adult Christians have a monopoly on these qualities?
Mt 18:1-10 At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 He called a little child and had him stand among them. 3 And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 “And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me…10 “See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.
This, then, is my argument: that baptised children are bona fide members of the family of God, and as such should not be excluded from, but welcomed to, the family meal. To partake in that meal is a duty, a responsibility, a privilege and a joy, that belongs as much to them as it does to us. We will want to them receive some instruction and preparation beforehand. We will expect them in due course to mark their entry to adult discipleship by coming to confirmation. But the family meal is for the whole family of God. Let the children come.