A Pastoral Letter on Paedocommunion
D. Patrick Ramsey
To the Members of Christ Presbyterian Church: Many of you have felt the winds of paedocommunion that have been blowing in our little neck of the woods these days. So I wanted to take this opportunity to explain the church's position on this issue. Paedocommunion is the practice of serving Communion to covenant children (the prefix paedo- means "infant" or "child") on the basis of their baptism or covenant membership and thus before they are able to understand the gospel and make a profession of faith.
The most consistent paedocommunionists administer the sacramental elements to their nursing infants by a method known as intinction. A Communion wafer, dipped into the wine, is placed between the infant's lips, in order to enable the nursing infant to receive a tiny amount of the elements. Other paedocommunionists, however, would argue that only covenant children who can digest solid food should participate in the sacrament.
Our Church Standards
Paedocommunion is contrary to what our church teaches and practices. We do not believe that the Bible sanctions the practice of serving Communion to infants or very young children. Rather, we believe that a credible profession of faith is necessary before coming to the Lord's Table. This position is sometimes referred to as credocommunion (credo is Latin for "I believe"). Question 177 of the Larger Catechism says that the Lord's Supper is to be administered "only to such as are of years and ability to examine themselves." The OPC's Directory for Worship says that only those who "have been baptized and have made public profession of faith in Jesus Christ" may be admitted to the Lord's Supper (IV, A.1; see also III, C.3).
There is an initial plausibility to the argument for paedocommunion, at least for those who already hold to paedobaptism (infant baptism), as we do. If we baptize our children without them making a profession of faith, then it would seem to follow that they should receive Communion without a profession of faith. If the Lord's Table is for the Lord's people, and if our children are among the Lord's people, then why would we not serve them Communion? Accordingly, both Baptists (who neither baptize nor offer Communion to young children) and paedocommunionists (who do both for young children) often argue that it is inconsistent to hold both to paedobaptism and to credocommunion. If covenant children do not need to make a profession of faith in order to be baptized, then it is inconsistent, they argue, to require a profession of faith in order to receive Communion.
In response, I do want to strongly affirm, along with the paedocommunionists, that the children of believers are members of the church and belong to the Lord Jesus. As is often misunderstood even by many Presbyterians today, covenant children do not become members when they first take Communion. They are born into the church and so receive the mark of membership, baptism, as infants.
Similar, but Different
The fact that our children are baptized members of the church, however, does not mean that they should automatically partake of the Lord's Supper. To argue that it does mean that is to commit the fallacy of false analogy. While the two sacraments are similar, they nonetheless are different in important respects, which renders the analogy false. To compare baptism with the Lord's Supper is like comparing apples with oranges. Yes, both apples and oranges are fruit, but they are significantly different kinds of fruit. Similarly, baptism and the Lord's Supper are both sacraments, but they differ in important respects. Therefore, the fact that infants receive one sacrament does not automatically imply that they should receive the other sacrament.
Again, all persons born in America are American citizens, but not every American citizen is eligible to vote, drive a car, or join the Armed Forces. Likewise in the church, believing adults and their children are all church members, and therefore they should all be baptized. But not every baptized member is eligible to partake of the Lord's Supper.
The nature of the Lord's Supper is such that it is not meant for all church members. It is a meal consisting of bread and wine. According to 1 Corinthians 11, participants are required to take the elements, and eat and drink them. Active physical participation is therefore part of the essence of the Lord's Supper. Infants, even though they are church members, are physically incapable of actively participating in the Lord's Supper. If God had intended for every member to come to the Table, then he would not have established it in such a way that naturally precludes some members.
Active Spiritual Participation Needed
Active physical participation points to active spiritual participation. The physical eating and drinking is a visible picture of the inward eating of Christ's body and drinking of his blood, which is accomplished by faith (John 6:53-54). To eat and drink is to embrace Christ as Lord and Savior, and share in his body and blood (1 Cor. 10:16). Participants are thus required to eat and drink in remembrance of Christ. In so doing, they proclaim the Lord's death until he comes (1 Cor. 11:24-26). Hence, active spiritual participation is part of the essence of Communion.
Baptism is different in that active spiritual participation is not an inherent component. In baptism, the participant is passive. He does not baptize himself. Rather, he is baptized by the minister. In Communion, as we have just seen, the participant is active: he takes, he eats, he drinks, and he remembers.
This difference between the two sacramentsone involving active participation and the other only passive participationreflects their different symbolisms. Baptism represents our entrance into the church, while the Lord's Supper signifies our growth as Christians. As Herman Bavinck, a noted Dutch theologian, observes: "There is a great difference between baptism and the Lord's Supper. Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration, a sacrament in which a human is passive; the Lord's Supper is the sacrament of maturation in communion with Christ, the formation of the spiritual life, and presupposes conscious and active conduct on the part of those who receive it" (Reformed Dogmatics, 4:583).
Since active spiritual participation is an intrinsic part of the Lord's Supper, the apostle Paul requires active spiritual preparation before one eats and drinks: "Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup" (1 Cor. 11:28). Paul bases this command upon the nature of the Lord's Supper, which he discusses in verses 23-26, as indicated by the "therefore" in verse 27. In other words, the duty of self-examination is derived from the requirement to eat and drink in remembrance of Christ.
The Lord's Supper is not just a meal. It is a sacramental (religious) meal, in which the participant shares in the body and blood of Jesus by faith (1 Cor. 10:16). One must, therefore, be able to discern the body (of the Lord) in order to partake in a worthy manner (vs. 29). It is not surprising, then, that Paul uses a general term, and not a specific term, in verse 28 ("let a person"note also "whoever" in vs. 27) to indicate that self-examination is required of all partakers. Consequently, the duty of self-examination is not limited to certain persons, as paedocommunionists would argue; it is required of everyone who would come to the Table. (See George Knight's article, "The Lord's Supper: Warnings for All" in New Horizons, April 2008, which is available online at opc.org/nh.html.)
Because the Lord's Supper demands active spiritual preparation and participation, we require our covenant children to mature spiritually before they partake of this sacrament. Once again, this does not mean that they are not church members or that they are not saved. Nor does it mean that they need to be sixteen and have the catechism memorized. It simply means that they should not be served Communion until they are "of years and ability to examine themselves" (Larger Catechism 177) and have made "public profession of faith in Jesus Christ" (Directory for Worship, IV, A.1).
The author is pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in London, Ky. New Horizons, December 2011.