How Old Must A Child Be To Come To The Lord’s Table?

How old must a child be to come to the Lord’s Table? We know from the nature of the two sacraments (covenant signs and seals) instituted by our Lord that infant communion (paedocommunion) is an error. It confuses the sign of renewal (the Supper) with the sign of initiation (baptism) into the visible covenant community. The intent, purpose, and nature of the Supper is to renew frequently the promises of the covenant of grace. In this way the Supper is distinct from baptism. Circumcision happens only once. Baptism, the New Covenant initiation into the visible church, is also a ritual, symbolic identification with Christ’s death. That identification can only happens once. Anything after circumcision is mutilation (Gal 5:12). By contrast, the Lord’s Supper is meant to be repeated. It was instituted to be observed repeatedly, regularly, frequently, and some argue even weekly (see e.g., Acts 2:42). In the institution our Lord said, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26; ESV).

There has been pressure from some quarters to commune younger children. Sometimes this pressure comes from families who are emerging from Baptist and more broadly evangelical settings into Reformed congregations. Because they have not grasped clearly the distinction between initiation and renewal they conflate the two signs. They reason that if covenant children are members of the visible church by baptism (they are) that they should also be permitted to the table.

This problem has already been addressed above but it is essential for these parents to see the difference between initiation and renewal in the outward administration of the covenant of grace. Baptism recognizes the rightful place of the children of believers in the visible church. Communion is a privilege reserved for members of the visible church who have made a credible (believable) profession of faith before the elders.

Another source of pressure is social. Parents and children see the children of other Christian parents making profession and there is a sense of being left behind. Parents naturally want the best for their children and when they see other children coming to the table they fear that their children are missing out.

Both newcomers to Reformed and Presbyterian churches and those who feel a pressure to keep up need to appreciate an important biblical teaching in 1 Corinthians 11 where Paul writes:

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world (1 Cor 11:27–32; ESV).

We used to call the Lord’s Supper “Holy Communion.” It might be a good idea to renew our use of that language. That which is holy is not common. It is set apart. It is sacred. It is clean. It is not like everything else. It is not for everyone. It is not for unbelievers. It is not for the unbaptized. It is not for those who are under church discipline, who have been suspended from the table or excommunicated. It is for believers who able to examine themselves, who have sufficient maturity to know themselves, who is able to “discern” the body and blood of the Lord (about which see the essay linked below). The question elders, whose job it is to fence the table, and parents must face is this: are young children (e.g., ages infant to 9) able to examine themselves and discern the body and blood of the Lord? Almost certainly not.

Clearly, according to Paul, there is risk associated with the table. Would elders or parents permit small children to drive a car? Certainly not. Why not? Because they lack the judgment, discretion, experience, wisdom, and even the motor skills to control a 2,000 lb vehicle capable of high speeds. Even on the farm, where children learn to drive earlier than city kids, most kids do not drive even in the pasture until they demonstrate a certain degree of responsibility. Driving a car is a secular matter not a matter of spiritual life and death. The same cannot be said of the Lord’s Supper. It is a sacred meal to which a certain jeopardy is attached and the abuse of which in Corinth led to real consequences. Why would we involve young children, too young to know themselves or to understand what it means to “eat the body and blood of Christ” in such a sacred ritual? Why would we expose them (and the congregation) to potential jeopardy? On reflection most parents and elders would almost certainly see the wisdom of postponing participation until a child can give a reasonably mature account of the faith, including an account of what is taking place in the Supper.

Perhaps the most insidious and dangerous motive for bringing infants and young children to the table is the influence of the self-described, so-called “Federal Vision” theology (see below). This aberrant view, rejected by the United Reformed Churches, the PCA General Assembly and study committee, the OPC study committee, the RCUS, the RPCNA, the RPCGA, and the ARP, teaches that at baptism the child is granted a provisional election, justification, union with Christ, and adoption. Those provisional “baptismal benefits” are said to be retained by grace and our cooperation with grace. Without sufficient cooperation they may be lost. We might fairly call this view a sort of sacerdotal Arminianism or as my pastor Chris Gordon has called it, “covenantal Arminianism.” The Federal Visionists hold that God has made a provisional covenant and grants these provisional benefits in baptism.

This error rejects the biblical, confessional, and historic Reformed distinction between the two ways of existing in the one visible church: internally (spiritually) and externally. All baptized members are outward members of the visible church but only believers receive Christ and his benefits. Only the elect come to faith. There are not two kinds of election, provisional and eternal. There is but one election from all eternity, in Christ. It is an unconditional election and it is an election to new life and to true faith. Christ’s benefits are administered in the visible church but the sacraments are not magic. They do not have the power to confer a provisional new life, election, and salvation. They signify salvation and they seal it to believers but they do not create the reality they signify. Because of this confused and dangerous theology, the Federal Vision churches are known to practice infant communion (paedocommunion) in order to enable infants to begin to fulfill “their part” of the covenant, to maintain what has supposedly been given them in baptism.

We probably cannot say with certainty exactly when every child should be permitted to the table but we can say with certainty, on the basis of the clear teaching of Scripture, what sort of maturity we should expect from covenant children before the come to the table.

More Resources

  1. Fed By Christ or By the Guy Next to Me?
  2. Profession of Faith and Communion
  3. Paedocommunion Answered
  4. For Those Just Tuning In: What Is The Federal Vision?
  5. Resources on Fencing the Table
  6. Who May Come To The Table of The Lord?

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  1. I would suggest you consider deleting, “are young children (e.g., ages infant to 9) able to examine themselves and discern the body and blood of the Lord? Almost certainly not” since you later conclude (and I believe rightly) “We probably cannot say with certainty exactly when every child should be permitted to the table.”

    • Phil,

      I can’t do that. My point is to give pause to those who are communing to seeking to commune 1–9 year olds. It may be that 10 is too young these days but I am confident that children under 10 cannot “discern the body of Christ” nor is she able to examine herself in a way that meets Paul’s test. Given certain social trends (e.g., infantalization, the apparent postponing of maturity) it may well be that some children older than 10 will not be able to meet these tests.

      Please see the additional resources linked at the bottom of the essay.

  2. In the denomination in which I was raised, 18 or 19 seemed to be about the average age for public profession of faith. I do believe that a consistory should exercise extreme caution caution when admitting people to holy communion; this is not something to be taken lightly. It has eternal consequences, for both the participant and the consistory involved. That is not to say that a public profession is a guarantee, and that consistories will be punished for a person departing the faith, but it is a warning to exercise caution. All who desire to participate in the Lord’s Supper should be held to the same standard, although exceptions can be made for those with disabilities that would render it impossible to discern the way Paul describes.

  3. An excellent treatment on the issue of when children should be admitted to the Lord’s Supper. Allowing them too early can cause them much harm if they receive it without properly appreciating what it signifies, as the Word of God warns. Or in the case of the paedocommunion, as advocated by the FV, it becomes, as you put it, sacerdotal Arminianism, where children are taught that this is something we do to help us keep our salvation.

  4. It is easy to withhold the benefits of union with Christ from children. They don’t get mad and quit the church. It is when week after week, elders shamelessly look the other way when serving the supper to those whom they suspect do not discern the Lord’s body, or at least fail to demonstrate that union, that the weakness of the argument against covenant communion becomes most apparent. I see children sing with earnest, “yes, Jesus loves me,” but his name never crosses the lips of may adults who proudly receive his body and blood as if it were their due. Hiding behind the assumption of a truthful profession, elders fail to protect many unworthy partakers from the consequences that they so confidently profess to protect children from. Here again I apply the need for proactive church discipline.

    • The first sentence begs the question in favor of a P-C stance. Once you fix that, then there’s the hurdle: Abusus non tollit usum. {An elder (or elders) who fails in his duty} is a worthless cavil against proper exercise of authority/care/discipline.

      Reformed elders are performing a conscientious service to the immature and unready members of the flock entrusted to them, when they apply a biblical standard of knowledgeable profession, an expressible awareness of law and gospel, of guilt, grace, and gratitude, of Christ and him crucified to the Table.

      If anything, the greater simplicity of our NT ordinances require an increase in the standard of apprehension of what’s going on, not the reduction to presumptive regeneration.

      Lev.7:20-21 definitively shows that the standard of ceremonial cleanness–a personal, qualitative, and, depending on the situation, a mediator-authoritative (priestly) JUDGMENT on top of it–was an immovable requirement for every participant in OT ritual, in particular the sacrificial meals (also cf. Lev.5:2-3; Num.9:6-ff). Truly, the Mosaic administration had a “worthy-participation” standard, also.

      P-C is a theory in search of biblical support. It is no necessary conclusion demanded from the church (especially the Reformed Church) from an accumulation and preponderance of the evidence.

    • Scott,
      1) Yes, P-C is a shorthand for paedo-communion
      2) The 1st sentence to which I refer is of the comment to which I’m replying (note the nesting of our comments): “It is easy to withhold the benefits of union with Christ from children.” That (and the rest of the reply) is part-and-parcel of P-C rhetoric.

    • There seems to be some confusion about your comment. You conclude with an appeal for proactive church discipline, yet some of your statements might suggest that you are arguing for paedocommunion. Could you clarify? I think that on matters of those who are mature in years, and have made a profession of faith, it is not up to the elders to try and look into the hearts of those receiving the Lord’s Supper to determine whether they are worthy recipients, unless there are clear indications that the person is openly denying the gospel or indulging in gross, unrepentant sin. Then it is their duty to apply discipline. In the case of children we want to make sure that they have reached an age when they can reasonably be expected to understand the significance of the sacrament and to be able to examine themselves. We have a responsibility to protect them from potential harm.

  5. William,
    I agree completely, discipline is important, in fact it is one of the three marks of the true Church as our confessions affirm. I think that as members of the body, we all have a responsibility for the soundness of the theology, piety, and practice of the Church by insisting it holds to what the confessions teach. If we feel that the leaders of our churches are negligent, we should respectfully raise the issue with them, appealing to the confessional standards. That is one of the great benefits of being part of a confessional church, that the consensus of the Church, not the subjective opinion of any one person, decides the issue. It also gives every member a powerful voice, which they have a responsibility to exercise, if we notice that there is negligence on the part of those who should be leading in the churches.

  6. Being raised a confessional Lutheran and attending its grammar school from K-8, studying the Bible and Luther’s Catechism, I am glad I wasn’t allowed Holy Communion until my “confirmation” (my understanding of the body and blood of Christ) after graduation of 8th grade.

  7. Here’s where, as a retired OPC pastor, I appreciate the Presbyterian approach to profession of faith, rather than the “confessional membership” approach of the continental Reformed church. My family roots are in the Dutch Reformed tradition, but I have many relatives in those churches who are confessing members of their churches, but have really minimal understanding of Reformed distinctives, even after catechism, I might add. The historic Presbyterian way of reception into membership after confessing gospel basics, allows us to receive children, say around the 10-12 year age into communicant membership without expecting them to understand many higher level theological distinction. They can discern the Lord’s body, but may by no means ready to discuss some higher level theology. I think I remember Calvin saying somewhere that a parent ought to be ashamed if his child had professed faith by around the age 10, but some Reformed churches seem shocked if a 10 year old, who can give a lovely testimony to his/her faith, wants to receive the Lord’s Supper. I remember laughing out loud– really– when I read Berghoef and DeKoster’s otherwise fine book on the eldership and they argued that one should make Profession of Faith around the age of 21 because that is when you can vote in civil elections, as if there was any connection whatsoever. If my memory is correct, even H. Hoeksema recommended that churches receive communicant members at much earlier ages than was customary. I’m not sure how much the PRC followed him on that, which is ironic since they seem to have followed him on almost everything else. 🙂

    • John,

      Those 10-year-olds in Calvin’s Geneva had already memorized catechism that was much longer than the Westminster Shorter Catechism.

      I have no difficulty admitting to communicate membership 10–12-year-olds but that is a different matter than admitting to membership those who are unable to understand what it means to “eat and drink judgment.” That is not some arbitrary standard. It is God’s Word.

      As to how we should relate to our Confessional standards, I have addressed this at length in Recovering the Reformed Confession. Suffice it to say here, the position that is widely held by American and Presbyterians today is not the historic Presbyterian position nor is it the historic Reformed position.

      • Yes, I’ve read your book, but I’m a little rusting on your position, since it was a few years ago.

        I completely agree with your main point in the post and that we should not admit those who can’t understand what it means to “eat and drink judgment.” Your probably right about Calvin’s Geneva, as well. However, I still think C’s point is well taken that we should encourage earlier, knowledgeable professions of faith.

        Yes, the current Presbyterian approach in the US may not be what many Reformed churches have historically held, but I think, in this case, it’s one of “reforming according to the Word of God.” I personally see the clear distinction in Scripture between a basic gospel profession of faith and officers being required to hold the “deep truths of the faith.” — 1 Timothy 3:9.

        I don’t think we’re very far apart at all in sentiment, but in application we would have some differences.

        Again, I’m clearly in complete sympathy with your basic point in this post.

  8. “We probably cannot say with certainty exactly when every child should be permitted to the table but we can say with certainty, on the basis of the clear teaching of Scripture, what sort of maturity we should expect from covenant children before the come to the table.”

    I must take exception to this paragraph. We teach our children that Grace is freely given, faith plus nothing. If communion is a commemoration of the wondrous thing that has been done on our behalf, what must a child do to earn, and we are talking about earning, salvation. What about a person who, by God’s providence does not possess full faculties in man’s eyes. Can that person never receive communion. A child can express faith, artlessly. I have heard professions from children as young as six that demonstrate a clarity that most adults do not posses. And what of the adult who “comes to faith” makes a profession, receives communion, but slips away never to be heard from again in your church. Are you guilty of sin for administering communion to that man.
    Paul does not offer an age requirement, Christ said “suffer the little ones to come unto me.” I do not see any age limit in scripture. Circumcision was the initiation of old, but do we ever hear of a child, of any age, being kept from the Passover table? We know, from written evidence that paedocommunion was practiced as early as 251 AD and there is substantial circumstantial evidence it was practiced long before that. We have clear evidence that this practice continued until the 12th century. Even Westminster was not so bold as to propose a certain age.
    I believe we err in withholding this means of grace from the youngest among us, and worse we teach them they must barn the privilege that Christ graciously offered to all who are called according to His name, regardless of age.

    • Tom,

      Your view confuses Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Infants certainly have “right and interest” (as the older Reformed writers said) to the covenant of grace. We initiate them into the visible covenant community in baptism. We pray for them. We bring to them church. We catechize them and we pray with them home and expect them to make a credible profession of faith. At that time we admit them to the Lord’s Table.

      Your account, however, seems to ignore Paul’s words:

      But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly. For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep (1 Cor 11:28–30).

      I do not know of a 6-year old who can perform such an examination. I do not doubt that a 6-year is regenerate and loves Jesus but that is not the test that the Apostle Paul sets. He requires that a communicant be able to understand what it means to eat and drink the body and blood of Christ. That is a great mystery. So, I think that your view of the Supper is not quite high enough.

      Second, you rather easily conflate the Lord’s Supper with salvation. Clearly not all who eat are saved. The Supper itself does not confer salvation. That confuses the sign (the Supper) with the thing itself, salvation. Scripture teaches no such thing and the Reformed confess so no such thing.

      When we fence the table we are recognizing that one may be a believer and yet not be eligible for the table.

      On the Passover table and paedocommunion generally see this series. We have good biblical reasons to think that infants were not at the table and further that small children were not at the Passover table. It is also probably not right to assume a one to one correspondence between the Passover Table and the Lord’s Table. See the series and Venema’s work, on which the series was based.

  9. Scott,
    Would you apply this same standard to an “adult” who grew up without any orthodox exposure or understanding to the Christian faith? Would he be required, like a covenant child, to understand what it means to “eat and drink judgment” before being admitted to communicate membership? Thanks.

  10. Scott, a good and helpful post. May I add another point. I have served as a PCA ruling elder for many years. One of my most gut-wrenching experiences was to have to interview a group of 6-9 yr olds and then have to vote not to accept some of them into communicant membership and then have to call the parents and explain why. It still hurts. Parents seem inclined to think that there is a type of provisional acceptance to the Lord’s Table that I might call “parentally supervised partaking.” However, our BCO does not allow for this. When I, as an RE, vote to accept a young person into communicant membership, I am certifying to all other Sessions of the PCA that this young person meets the requirements and expectations of communicant membership. (The actions of one court are the actions of all.) I have to ask if this young person could meaningfully partake in a service without parents present. I have voted to accept some 9 yr olds that I thought could do this. I post this comment because I want parents to understand the quandary they put on their Sessions when they bring their children for interviews. I have read much on the early communion issue, but I have not seen this perspective that I mention here highlighted the way it should be. You could argue to change the BCO, but this is what I have vowed to uphold.

    • Richard,

      1. We need to be better generally at catechesis (instruction in the faith). We have lowered our standards for profession as we have lowered our catechetical standards.

      2. We need to instruct our parents more carefully. They expect less of their children because we expect less of them.

      3. We need to convince parents that communion is not an extension of the family but a ministry of the visible church. It is this confusion of family and church that fuels paedocommunion. The Lord’s Supper/Holy Communion is a ministry of the keys of the kingdom. The family is not administering those keys formally. The keys belong to the visible church and are to be administered by her officers on behalf of Christ.

  11. As noted above, I would encourage many children to make public professions of faith at a younger age than many churches, especially those in the Continental Reformed tradition have been prone to do.

    With that, as a previous poster has clearly noted, this requires much discernment on the part of sessions or consistories/councils. I remember when one young girl– I’m guessing she was about 6 or 7, but it was many years ago and I can’t remember exactly– requested to be interviewed by the session for admission to communicant membership. We did not so no, but probed a bit to try to discern her understanding. She clearly seemed to love Jesus and could give a very simple testimony, but her understanding was very limited and she seemed to understand that.

    Finally one of the elders asked her in a very gentle way: “M would you like to come back and talk to us when you’re older.” She said, “yes,” and looked very relieved. Her parents, I believe, were the ones encouraging her to meet with us and she clearly wasn’t ready.

    Having said, that, we need to be careful and not fall into the other extreme, I believe, of expecting quite sophisticated understandings of what it means to make a profession of faith or even what the LS means. As long as a child can express the basics of salvation and the basics of the LS as a means of reminding and reassuring them of Christ’s death for them, in most cases, they are probably ready to make a profession of faith, I believe.

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