The Toughest Issue

Why the RCA said yes to baptized children at the Lords Supper

Should children be permitted at the Lord's table?

Thirty years ago that question would not have come up in most evangelical churches. But today many churches have studied that question seriously (see box). And many members of these churches believe baptized children should be allowed and encouraged to participate in the Lord's Supper./p>

Why this shift in thinking? What has prompted the discussion? What issues are at stake?

<We have asked James Cook, professor of New Testament at Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Michigan, to reflect on this issue. Cook was a member of the Theological Commission of the Reformed Church in America (RCA), a group that dealt carefully with the question of children at the Lord's table. He will discuss the issue from the vantage point of thai commission, but the shift of focus which he witnessed in the RCA may well be paralleled in other denominations.

In June 1988 the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America voted "to encourage boards of elders of RCA congregations to include baptized children at the Lord's table." Thus ended a discussion begun in 1972 when the Classis of Albany (New York) overtured the General Synod to study the possibility of allowing "baptized members of the church to partake of the Lord's Supper before making a public profession of faith." During the sixteen intervening years the denomination, like Matthew's householder (13:52), brought out of its treasure "what is new and what is old" to reach the decision of 1988.

The Old

To the category "old" belong the rediscovery of the church year and a return to the Reformed theology of baptism.

The rediscovery of the Christian calendar came with liturgical renewal. Congregations began to celebrate the Lord's Supper on Maundy Thursday, and many preceded it with a Seder meal. Parents discovered the awkwardness of moving from the parish hall to the sanctuary, from the Jewish celebration that had included the children to the Christian sacrament that did not. Why should covenant children, welcomed to the meal of the old covenant, be excluded from the meal of the new and better covenant?

The pain of excluding children became more pronounced as many congregations moved from quarterly to monthly celebrations of the supper. Increased frequency magnified the place of the table, making the exclusion of children all the more obvious.

Renewed attention to the one sacrament inevitably drew attention to the other. A review of the Reformed doctrine of baptism placed even more question marks over the exclusion of covenant children from the Lord's table. Clearly underlining the parallel between circumcision and bap-tism, the Belgic Confession (Article 34) speaks of the children of believers whom "we believe ought to be baptized and sealed with the sign of the covenant, as little children were circumcised in Israel on the basis of the same promises made to our children." To the question Should infants, too, be baptized? (Q & A 74) the Heidelberg Catechism responds:


Infants as well as adults
are in God's covenant and are his people.

The truth in these doctrinal statements led naturally to a liturgical declaration such as the following, used in many RCA congregations after baptism:

In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, the only King and Head of his Church, I declare that this child is now received into the visible membership of the Holy Catholic Church.

To many this language suggested inclusion, not exclusion, and moved the discussion to issues of theological consistency. Was it theologically consistent to encourage young people—who had been declared members when they were baptized—to "join" the church through profession of faith? Was it theologically consistent for the church to argue (against those Baptists who opposed infant baptism) that an inclusive circumcision translated into an inclusive baptism while at the same time maintaining that although Passover had been inclusive, the Lord's Supper should be exclusive? Was it theologically consistent to offer the unrepeatable sacrament of initiation to children while reserving the repeated sacrament of nourishment and growth for adults? Do not John Calvin's beautiful and eloquent words in favor of including children in baptism apply equally to the Lord's table?

For we must not lightly pass over the fact that Christ commands that infants be presented to him, adding the reason, "for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven" (Matt. 19:14). And thereupon he attests his will by his act when, embracing them, he commends them with his prayer and blessing to his Father. If it is right for infants to be brought to Christ, why not also to be received into baptism, the symbol of our communion and fellowship with Christ?

Institutes 4, xvi, 7

If, as Calvin concluded, "infants are baptized into future repentance and faith, and even though these have not yet been found in them, the seed of both lies hidden within them by the secret working of the Spirit" (Institutes 4, xvi, 20), it is difficult to avoid the same conclusion about children at the Lord's table.

The New

To the category "new" belongs the contribution of faith development and the clarification of 1 Corinthians 11.

The behavioral sciences have taught us that Christian learning begins at birth. In the first year of a child's life loving care, freely received, elicits a response of trust and instills a sense of the reality of grace. Recipients of such nurture readily sense the ring of reality in the gospel, since it resonates with their deepest experiences and understandings.

At the age of four, children demonstrate remarkable understanding of the stories of Scripture and of symbols in worship and sacraments. The awareness of love for Jesus, the feeling of belonging to the Christian family, and the desire to participate in the Lord's Supper are likely to emerge at this time. So it makes sense that this is also the age at which we should introduce the Lord's Supper, the third means of grace. The goal of the supper is precisely that of the Word and baptism, the other two means of grace: to move baptized children toward a personal affirmation of the baptismal covenant and a joyful participation in the full faith and life of the people of God.

When members of our denomination were struggling with this issue, we found the faith-development argument very convincing. But even to the almost-persuaded there remained the traditional biblical barrier of 1 Corinthians 11, with its sobering call to self-examination and its grim warning that those who eat and drink "without discerning the body" eat and drink judgment upon themselves. This passage appeared to establish an informed, adult faith in Christ as a necessary precondition for coming to the Lord's table.

More recent expositions of 1 Corinthians 11, which keep the crucial verses in their context, have brought clarification. In verse 22 Paul reveals that many of the Corinthians despised the church of God. Paul then recalls Jesus' words of institution at the first supper to remind his readers of the One who offered not only food and drink but also himself. The attitude of Jesus at the institution and the act of Jesus on the cross were in starkest contrast to the attitude of the Corinthians, described in verses 18—21.

The creation and preservation of the church of God—and the communion in it of those who have much and those who have nothing—are rooted in Jesus' death. Once we grasp that, the connection between the words of institution and the words of warning is clear. For whoever eats the bread and drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner (that is, with the factionalism and lovelessness that marked the Corinthian assembly) is indeed guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.

However, the sins that made the Corinthians unworthy partakers—schisms,insensitivity,drunkenness—are the sins not of children but of adults. If discerning the body means having a proper sense of Christian community, children, with their quick responses of love and trust, their experience with family, and their natural sense of dependence on others, might indeed be judged worthy partakers—more readily than many adults.

Thus, our commission concluded that 1 Corinthians 11 does not address the issue of covenant children and the Lord's Supper. Convinced of that truth, the 1988 General Synod of the RCA encouraged elders to include baptized children at the Lord's table.

Should Children Partake?

James Cook's article describes the development of the issue of children at the Lord's table in the Reformed Church in America. A brief survey of some other Reformed and Presbyterian denominations shows that we find much discussion but no unanimity on the question.

Christian Reformed Church

The CRC began its study of children at the table in 1984, and a committee submitted two lengthy reports to synod in 1986 and J 988 (including minority reports).

The 1988 majority report concluded "that children of believing parents ought to be brought to the Lord's table by virtue of the fact that the covenant is with believers and their children." Such admission to the table would come after the child had given an expression of "a faith that lays hold of Christ simply and sincerely" but would not necessarily require a formal "profession of faith."

Synod 1988 rejected this recommendation and reaffirmed the traditional stance that admission may come only after the church has "assured itself of such faith through a public profession of faith." However, synod did recommend that congregations encourage children to make profession of faith at an earlier age.

Orthodox Presbyterian Church

The OPC 1988 General Assembly was presented with two reports: (a) a Majority Report favoring paedo-communion—allowing a child to participate in the Lord's Supper without making profession of faith and becoming a communicant member; and (b) a Minority Report stating that paedo-communion is not permitted by Scripture and the confessions. The two reports were sent to the churches for study, and presbyteries were requested to report their responses to the 1990 General Assembly.

The OPC thus at most "allows" children to participate in the Lord's Supper, and some congregations do practice such communion.

The Directory for Worship, however, contains stipulations for public profession of faith (the traditional avenue to the Lord's table) which require that a person possess "the doctrinal knowledge requisite for active faith." Such stipulation discourages children's participation in communion.

Presbyterian Church in America

The PCA General Assembly of 1987 received two reports on children at the Lord's Supper—with the minority report favoring the admission of all baptized children to the table.

The General Assembly of 1988 rejected the minority report and maintained the traditional practice of allowing two options:

  1. The more customary practice is for young people to make a formal profession of faith and to become communicant members; at that time they are admitted to the Lord's Supper.
  2. Sessions are, however, allowed to hear a profession of faith of a younger child; such profession would not entail "full" membership but does allow a child to participate in the celebration of the Lord's Supper.
Presbyterian Church (USA)

The PC(USA) currently endorses the following practice: "Baptized members are entitled to the pastoral care and instruction of the church and to participate in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper."

A proposed amendment to the Constitution has slightly different wording: "Baptized children who are being nurtured and instructed in the significance of the invitation to the table and the meaning of their response are invited to receive the Lord's Supper, recognizing that their understanding of participation will vary according to their maturity."

James I. Cook is a professor of New Testament at Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Michigan.


Reformed Worship 12 © June 1989, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.