The Lord's Supper and Covenant Children

Stuart R. Jones

A recent decision of the Christian Reformed Church (June 2006) to prepare the way for child communion within that denomination highlights the durability of that issue. The General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church received a report on this issue in 1987 in which a division of opinion was expressed. I will argue that the Confessional Standards of the OPC are correct in disallowing the practice of paedocommunion, because of the nature of the Lord's Supper as a covenant renewal meal.

The clearest statement of the Westminster Standards on this question would seem to be found in Larger Catechism Answer 177 (italics added):

Wherein do the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper differ? A. The sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper differ, in that baptism is to be administered but once, with water, to be a sign and seal of our regeneration and ingrafting into Christ, and that even to infants; whereas the Lord's Supper is to be administered often, in the elements of bread and wine, to represent and exhibit Christ as spiritual nourishment to the soul, and to confirm our continuance and growth in him, and that only to such as are of years and ability to examine themselves.

The notion that the Lord's Supper is, among other things, a covenant renewal, is expressed near the end of WLC answer 174. The same term or idea is not used with regard to baptism in the standards.[1] That Baptism and the Lord's Supper are covenant seals, is basic to the Reformed definition of sacraments (cf. WLC 162). One specific affirmation of this idea connected with the Lord's Supper is found in Mathew 26:28 (italics added): "For this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins." (Most manuscripts add the word "new" before "covenant.")

In ancient cultures and early biblical times, a meal was sometimes used as part of a covenant ratification. For example, a meal is mentioned in the covenants made between Isaac and Abimelech in Genesis 26:28-30 (parallel to Abraham in Genesis 21:30-32, though no meal is mentioned), Jacob and Laban in Genesis 31:52-54, and God and Israel in Exodus 24:11. This practice is in the background of the Last Supper as we find Moses' words in Exodus 24:8 providing the intertextual link: "This is the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you according to all these words (NKJV)." It may be that the ancient law of hospitality which upheld a sacred duty between host and guest was ritually used to reinforce the seriousness of any treachery by a covenant breaker. Evidence of this connection is found in John 13:26, as Jesus predicts Judas's betrayal, echoing the words of Psalm 41:9.

The debate over paedocommunion often turns on two questions: 1) If the Lord's Supper is a fulfilled Passover and children ate the Passover, should not children eat the Lord's Supper? 2) If we baptize children because they are in the covenant, despite their lack of discernment, should we not also give them the Lord's Supper, since the argument for discernment in 1 Corinthians 11 deals with adult abusers of the meal, rather than children?

Concerning the first question, we need to note that covenant is a basic principle that gives meaning to all of the Old Testament sacrifices. Without a covenant relationship and definition for sacrificial practice instituted by God, all sacrifices amount to will worship. The Passover was a momentous event for Israel and the Lord's Supper is connected to it as both are given meaning and defined by the person and work of Christ (the Passover prospectively and the Lord's Supper retrospectively). Though the Passover functions as a preliminary factor on which to give footing to the Mosaic Covenant (e.g. the prologue of the Ten Commandments), Israel was "My people" and Pharaoh was informed of the fact before the Passover and Exodus. The Passover fulfilled promises to Abraham and also laid groundwork for the Mosaic Covenant at Sinai. The essential unity of the covenant of grace traced back to Genesis 3 and fulfilled in Christ implies that the Passover was part of the larger covenantal process. Therefore, we must not assign too much weight to the Passover when seeking to understand the Lord's Supper. In the book of Hebrews, Christ's death is viewed primarily in terms of the new covenant. A fleeting reference to the Passover is found in Hebrews 11:28, where it is mentioned as one among many faith-events in the Old Testament. Although the Passover anticipated the Lord's Supper, the true linkage between these feasts is the cross of Christ and its covenantally defined atonement.

The importance of recognizing the Lord's Supper as a covenant renewing seal is that it provides a serious basis for withholding the sacrament from undiscerning children, apart from the grave warning in 1 Corinthians 11. In Nehemiah 10:28, "knowledge and understanding" are prerequisite to entering the curse and oath that was part of the covenant renewal exercise of Nehemiah's day. This factor parallels Paul's call to discernment in 1 Corinthians 11. While Paul's purpose in warning the Corinthians is not directed toward children, the foundation of his warning has implications for undiscerning participants be they children or adult. In the covenant meal, we are to contemplate the greatest covenant curse ever experienced—Christ's atoning death. But we may not treat the meal as a mere memorial. We are communing with the One who was cursed for our sins. While consecration and religious devotion were certainly part of the Passover meal, the element of covenant renewal is not as pointedly present as in the Feast of Tabernacles, much less the Lord' Supper. It was at the Feast of Tabernacles that the law was read every seven years on the year of release (Deuteronomy 31:10-13), and this feast plays a major part in the life of discerning covenant renewers in Nehemiah's day (cf. Nehemiah 8:2,14; 10:28).

It has been the practice of societies to give children legal status without encumbering them with legal responsibility to sign covenants and contracts. Their familial relationship gives them special advantages or liabilities depending on their parent's industry and character and good providence. The inability to personally covenant or renew a covenant does not imply lack of covenantal status, privilege, or responsibility. The principle of attaining a legal self-responsibility with regard to the covenant was recognized in Nehemiah's day. At Qumran, it was the sons who reached about age 20 who were allowed to "pledge themselves by the oath of the covenant" (Damascus Document XV.5-6).[2] According to the Mishna, "no oath is imposed on a minor" though the minor might have property on which a claim is asserted. An oath may be imposed in this case, but it is probably against the claimant or the guardian (Shebuoth 6.4).

A child of the new covenant is no more displaced from the covenant by being kept from the Lord's Supper than an American child ceases to be a citizen because he is not allowed to vote. The child's parents have taken covenant vows and oaths at the child's baptism. If they or a sponsor cannot make such covenant commitments with discernment, then this sacrament should also be withheld.

The nurturing image of the Lord's Supper has sometimes been used to suggest that we are letting our children go hungry. But this is to explain the Lord's Supper in terms of a single aspect. A fellowship dinner is where children may participate in a meal they can understand, without facing the weighty responsibilities of a covenant renewer. Any lesson of nurture that might suggest to the young that the Lord's Supper is snack time will hardly help cultivate sacramental discernment that is essential to proper observation of the ordinance.

Arguments for paedocommunion sometimes minimize the call to "worthy" reception in 1 Corinthians 11:27. There is evidence elsewhere in the New Testament that the call for receiving the Lord's Supper worthily or in a worthy manner (1 Cor. 11:27) is not a purely occasional concern of Paul's but is very much a generalized principle in proper reception of the Lord's Supper. It is not merely schism in the body that is at issue. The covenant breaking of Israel's wilderness generation made their wilderness "sacraments" of no saving value (see 1 Corinthians 10:1-5), and they died in the wilderness. Similarly "some have died" among the Corinthians because of their wrongful reception of the Lord's Supper (1 Cor. 11:30).

In addition to the illumination of 1 Corinthians 11 afforded by 1 Corinthians 10, there is indirect but interesting evidence in Revelation 16:6 that worthy participation was a generally recognized canon for reception of the Lord's Supper. There is an antithetical parallelism built on the idea of a worthy dinner guest. The KJV renders the verse this way (italics supplied): "For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and thou hast given them blood to drink; for they are worthy." This verse contains an internal symmetry as well as interconnectedness with larger biblical themes. The internal symmetry is an ironic and fitting judgment. Some party "on the earth" has poured out the blood of God's saints and prophets. As retribution, in the third bowl of wrath the drinkable water on the earth has been turned to blood after the fashion of an Egyptian plague. One Greek word for "pouring" highlights the parallel between pouring the third bowl that transforms drinking water into blood. There is perhaps an echo of the Cana miracle, unique to John's Gospel, which is itself arguably an echo of the first Egyptian plague (Exodus 6:14). God's works come full circle from wrath to grace to final wrath. The same root Greek word for "pouring" is used in Christ's institution of the Lord's Supper (Mark 14:24 and parallels) and a warning to the religious leaders in Jerusalem with a close connection to the third bowl judgment (Matt. 23:34-35; cf. also Ps. 79):

Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed [poured] on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar.

The Lord's Supper is a sacramental proclamation of Christ's work on the cross. As that work highlights the experience of God's wrath, it is related to the wrath of the first Egyptian plague and the third bowl of wrath. As such, it is possible to draw some sort of relationship between the sacrament of the Lord's Supper and the third bowl of wrath. The words at the end of Revelation 16:6 are suggestive in this regard. The KJV helps bring out the point: "They are worthy." Rather than using the language connected with the fourth and fifth bowls to describe the justice of the judgment (they did not repent), the text speaks of being a worthy receiver of blood to drink.

The term worthy, when applied to receiving the Lord's Supper, is troubling to some because no person besides Christ is worthy of God's blessing. For this reason, and the fact that an adverbial form is used in 1 Corinthians 11, many English versions of the Bible translate the single word adverb as "worthy manner." Yet it is the eating and drinking that is modified by the adverb. We are still left with the question whether to focus on an outward manner or whether the inward problem that contributes to bad manners is immediately in view. In the near context, undiscerning eating and drinking is at the heart of the unworthy eating and drinking (vs. 29). As such, Paul is drawing attention to a broader principle than the need for an orderly liturgical celebration of the Lord's Supper. Special discernment is requisite to worthy eating and drinking. The issue is not worthiness in a purely judicial sense, but what is suitable and proper to sacramental participation.

Hospitality and worthiness are sometimes linked. Invited guests who fail to appear at a wedding prove themselves to be unworthy (Matt. 22:8). Jesus' disciples are worthy of provision from towns where they minister and at the same time are to find out who is worthy when they seek hospitality (Matt. 10:10-13; cf. 8:8).[3] Worthiness in the latter case may be related to good covenantal standing, but it is not personal self-righteousness. To reject hospitality or treat it without proper respect is to act unworthily. It is insensitivity born of a lack of discernment that seems to underlie the unworthy participation spoken of in 1 Corinthians 11.

In summary, 1 Corinthians 11:27 and Revelation 16:6 are linked by the common idea of being a worthy dinner guest. In the former case, the dinner is graciously offered and is to be graciously received; in the latter case the guest is involuntarily given a wrathful bowl and cup to consume. If the "party" under judgment in Revelation 16 is unbelieving Judaism, then the blood-drink is particularly appalling in view of Jewish sensibilities (cf. Acts 15:29).

On the level of covenantal standing or justification, the above considerations of "worthy" participation do not automatically preclude the involvement of children in covenant with God. It is the focus on discernment in the context of a covenant renewal meal that supplies the basis for excluding undiscerning covenant children. There is no "unworthiness" in the failure of a child to discern the body at their early age. There would be, however, a breaking down of the distinction between a sacred meal and a common meal if child participation lacked the element of discerning covenantal renewal. This would be unworthy eating and drinking.

Precisely how much discernment a child is capable of and how much understanding is necessary for worthy participation is another matter. The new covenant is simultaneously more accessible and deeper than the old covenant. The demands of the new law are simpler and more far-reaching as the royal law of love. The call to daily cross-bearing is more far-reaching than rabbinic parsing of Old Testament law. Whatever age is appropriate for participating in the Lord's Supper, however, it must be an age where gospel discernment is present and the Lord's Supper is seen as connected to that gospel rather than a mere social meal. Indeed, just seeing a connection to the gospel is not enough. Covenant renewing is no passive spectator event.


[1] The Confession of 1967 curiously reverses this, cf. Part II, Sec B.3-4.

[2] It seems that ritual purification at Qumran entailed periodic bathings and this was only allowed after one year of a novitiate. Only after the second year was the novitiate allowed to the sacred banquet. How this may have been related to the two sacraments of the Christian Church is a speculative matter not capable of treatment here, but it provides evidence that a temporal separation of ritual cleansing and ritual banqueting is not a unique idea, precisely because the ritual element, rather than the tangential symbolism of needful nourishment is in view.

[3] The marriage parable of Matthew 22 and the Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:9) are obviously related. These are also connected to Jesus' vow-promise in Matthew 26:29 which seems to tie the Lord's Supper with the final feast of history.

Stuart Jones, a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, is serving as pulpit supply in various churches and on the acting session of the mission work in Elkton, Maryland. A shorter version of this article appeared in New Horizons, vol. 29, no. 4 (April 2008). Ordained Servant, May 2008.

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Ordained Servant: May 2008

The Lamb's High Feast

Also in this issue

Transforming Presence: A Meditation on the Lord's Supper

A Practical Catechism for Those Preparing for Communicant Church Membership

Rethinking Weekly Communion

Why Weekly Communion?

God's Judgments? A Review Article

Real Presence: A Review Article

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