August 20, 2013
Updated February 27, 2014
10 comments 56 views
Like all good fathers, our heavenly Father seeks to nourish His children. He feeds us with His Word and feeds us with the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. In the Reformed tradition, both the Word and the sacraments remind our brains and prove to our senses (hearing, seeing, tasting) that God is gracious.
This is a reminder and a proof that all God’s children regularly need, which is why I’m personally thrilled the Christian Reformed Church has begun welcoming all baptized members (including children) to the Lord’s table. One could argue that excluding God’s younger children from the table is akin to excluding family members from Thanksgiving dinner based on their age.
By welcoming children to the Lord’s Supper, I see us correcting two unfortunate double standards that have become part of our tradition. The first is rooted in a faulty division between the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. We invite parents to bring their children forward to be baptized not because the children understand or deserve it, but because God has graciously made them part of His covenant family. I love these lines our baptism liturgy:
For you Jesus Christ came into the world;
for you He died; and for you He conquered death.
All this He did for you, little one,
though you know nothing of it as yet.
We love because God first loved us.
It seems inconsistent, then, that we demand a particular level of theological understanding for these same children to partake of the Lord’s Supper – a level they cannot achieve until they are older. Does this not fuel the belief that one ought to be smart enough or worthy enough to partake – a fallacy that those who are in Christ ought to vehemently reject? We all gather around the table on the same basis that we gather around the baptismal font – that, out of sheer grace, our loving heavenly Father includes us in His family and cares for our wellbeing and growth. We gather around the table not because we are worthy, but because we are in Christ, who alone is worthy!
In short, I am sympathetic with the assertion that we’ve either got stop baptizing children or we’ve got to start welcoming them to the table. If our children are part of the family, then let’s make sure they (and we) know it at the table.
The second double standard I see corrected by welcoming children to the Lord’s Supper is rooted in a faulty perception that Word and sacrament are fundamentally different. As I mentioned, God uses both the Word and sacraments to communicate His grace to us. We have no trouble inviting (expecting, even) children to be present at the reading and preaching of the Word, despite the reality that a lot of what is said goes right over their heads. Yet we do not fear any judgment they may face by being listeners but not doers of the Word. We do not wait until children are old enough to hear the words of Jesus and put them into practice like adults can before we expose them to the Word. If we welcome our covenant children to hear the Word and receive God’s grace through it, why would we prevent them from approaching the table to receive another means of grace? On the contrary, it is biblical and logical to invite children to be fed by the living Word – not only via the Bible but also Jesus Himself, the Word made flesh, at His table.
Yes, there is indeed something very special about the Lord’s Supper that we cannot lose sight of: Among numerous things, it is a memorial of Christ, evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit, a symbol of the unity of the church in all times and places, and a preview of God’s coming Kingdom. But there is also something very ordinary about the Lord’s Supper – we eat and we drink, something we do every day. It’s just as ordinary as listening to the Word. Or, perhaps it’s more accurate to say: It’s just as extraordinary as listening to the Word. And both are for all God’s covenant children.
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Stan and Monica, I am inclined to agree with you on this issue. I tend towards letting parents decide on whether their children ought to participate, and that some level of understanding and committment makes sense. If a child is totally rebellious towards God, then parents ought to have the wisdom to discourage or forbid their child to participate, but otherwise a parent ought to give permission if the child loves the Lord. Whether an infant who cannot yet talk or understand should participate should be left up to parents, and charity to all in this decision.
The scripture passage about discerning the body of Christ is sometimes better grasped by young children, than it is by some older confessing members, since it really means to care about the entire body of Christ, the people of God. Some older confessing members seem to care more about themselves and their own family, than they do about the family of God, and about Jesus himself, who died for us, and expects obedience from us, and consideration and respect for one another, regardless of wealth, position, and age.
The implications of this for profession of faith is that profession of faith time is usually not when one joins the body of Christ. Our present practice of formal Profession of faith is not the initial or perhaps not even the most significant profession of one's faith. Perhaps it ought to be seen as a profession of membership, an agreement to certain confessions, to a certain church body, and to scriptural moral behaviours and lifestyle. It also puts one under a special potential for discipline under membership, as compared to a general christian admonition to and from other christians which exists outside of formal "membership". I am thinking on paper here a bit, as a way of opening this thought more fully.
I have thought for some time that the way we do profession of faith is very deadening. It ought to be a time of sharing and rejoicing, but instead it is often a ritual, form-reading, and a time of inhibition, reducing our profession to something read by someone else who is not making the profession. Often there is doubt about the full committment of those making the profession, due to the lack of involvement, as well as the ritualistic ceremonialism of the event. Why not have the new members agree to the profession in the council room, after discussion, and then make a real verbal, extended, detailed committment in front of the congregation?
In some cases, we could also have people make a witness to the church prior to their being ready to become formal papered members. Those who have some minor disagreement with confessions of faith, or who are heavily struggling with unchristian lifestyles, could still make a profession of faith of where they are at, sharing their joy in Christ and progress in life with the body of christ in church. Then the membership profession would not become the only possible testimony by default, and perhaps it would be taken more seriously. Just thinking here.
Since we believe our heavenly Father wants to spiritually nourish His children why then, many in the CRC are satisfied to partake of the Lord's Supper no more than six times a year? And by the way, it's one thing to say baptism brings infants of believers into the covenant family but quite another to suggest the baptismal ritual makestem members of the family of God. They're not. They must be born again.
there has to be some level of understanding to participate, I am not sure how a young child examines himself carefully.
I appreciate the points you make but I still do have some reservations. There is definitely a difference between baptism and the Lord's Supper. Sometimes I think we impose a sacramental theology on the ordinances of Christ. (We first define sacraments and then make the Lord's Supper and Baptism fit the definition). In baptism God acts exclusively. He takes us into his covenant. From that moment on the relationship is two fold: God - Us. And that obligates us to respond in faith. But God acts first and alone in baptism. The Lord's Supper, however, is communion with God. We both act: God speaks to us, and we respond believingly. Christ gives himself in bread and wine and we take and eat. That is a major difference between the Lord's Supper and the Baptism of covenant children. In baptism they do not act. In the Lord's Supper they do. And we do not commune with God by just eating the bread and drinking the cup, but only when we do so in faith. Which is why I believe a profession of faith is necessary for participation in the Lord's Supper.
When should a person profess their faith? That is another question. I have no problem with young children professing their faith and particpating on the basis of that profession at communion, but it is far from a cure-all for the loss of our youth or their spiritual formation. Our Lutheran and Catholic neighbors having been doing that for centuries and they loose their youth even more rapidly than we loose ours. I have seen the same thing happen among the Reformed in the Netherlands. And it becomes no less a formalistic thing than the old custom where it was almost a graduation from catechism. Parents feel pressured to have their children conform to others. And when you hold youth to the life style required by the Lord's Supper you get as answer: it wasn't my choice, or eveyone was doing it, I was just going along, or it was my parent's decision. The Lord's Supper clearly does not automatically form faith.
I don't have the solution. But there does have to come a moment where faith is conscious choice and not just "because that is the way I was raised." Without that faith, you may be handed the body and blood of Christ, but all you eat are bread and wine. A meaningful participation where a person's faith is strengthened happens only when there is an understanding of who Christ is and what he has done, what is being said through the Lord's Supper to us, and my believingly accepting it.
This is also a difference with the preaching of the Word. You can hear the Word and not believe. The Lord's Supper, however, requires faith for a real participation in the "sacrament." So I would not have a problem requiring my children to attend worship and listening to the Word —I expect God to use that means to create faith. But I would not require my children to consider taking communion until there is evidence that they have faith and that they have "come out" with that faith.
Don, thanks for your comments! I agree that there are differences between Baptism, the Lord's Supper and the preaching of the word.
I appreciate the conversation here. I'd like to respond in particular to something Joe Serge writes, about the baptismal ritual making children members of the family of God. He's absolutely right that the baptism ceremony itself does not make one a child of God – it symbolizes an existing reality. We often use the langauge of "sign" and "seal." But I'm trying to process the assertion that children are not part of the family until they are born again. We hold that children of believers are holy (see 1Cor 7); we comfort grieving parents who lost a little one that they are now with Jesus. This suggests to me that children are indeed part of the family before affirming the faith for themselves. But that leaves us with some tension: What's the point of being born again, as Joe correctly emphasizes, if we're already part of God's covenant family? Or: If there is a point when a child needs to consciously decide that s/he is part of God's family (be born again), how do we know when precisely that has happened or should happen? These are questions I've wondered about.
See Berkhof's Systematic Theology, p. 288, under the heading "The Dual Aspect of the Covenant", esp such phrases as "God's promise to continue his covenant and bringit to full realizationin the children of believers does not mean that he will endow every last one of them with saving faith. and if some of them continue in unbelief, we shall have to bear in mind what Paul says in Romans 9, they are not all Israel who are of Israel, the children of belieers are not all children of promise. Hence it is necessary to remind even children constantly of the necessity of regeneration and conversion. The mere fact that one is in the covenant does not carry with it the assurance of salvaiton. When children of believers grow up and come to years of discretion it is of course incumbent uponthem to accept their covenant responsibilities voluntarily by a true confession of faith. Failure to do this is strictly speaking, a denial of their covenant relationship."
So there is some variation within the tradition concerning how to understand this question, which has contributed to the debate of children at the table.
Sorry...the one line should say "Hence it is necessary to remind even children *of the covenant* constantly of the necessity of regeneration and conversion."
See also a few pages earlier where he talks about how various Reformed theologians have distinguished between the covenant as a legal relationship and as a communion of life.
Some Christians sincerely believe baptized infants automatically become members of the family of God and are saved. They believe God’s covenant promise to Abraham “to be your God and the God of your descendants…”clearly says so. However, Scripture says although Jews are direct, physical descendants of Abraham, only those who accept Christ as Lord and Savior belong to God’s spiritual Israel and as such are children of the promise. Our children do not gain an automatic claim to salvation through family blood ties, as in the case of claiming a parent’s nationality.
The Roman centurion Cornelius and his household were all saved and when the Philippian jailer asked Paul and Silas what he must do to be saved, they replied, “believe in the Lord Jesus and you shall be saved, you and your household.” Salvation is gained according to individual faith not as a family, hence in both cases the apostles were saying all in those families who accept Christ are saved.
God’s covenant promise to Abraham is, “for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2:39) Note that the promise is for all “the Lord will call.” And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.(Romans 8:30).
In I Cor. 7:14 Paul says where only one parent is a believer, the children are holy; “for the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.” Being holy means “set apart” in a Christian environment where they hear about Jesus and the gospel message of salvation.
A little tangential to this, but a question: What resources have you found helpful in teaching the covenantal infant baptism perspective to those who are not familiar with it?
So far one of the most helpful I have found is the DVD from Third Millenium Ministries "Why Do We Baptize Our Children?", but I am sure that there's more out there.
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