by Al Maxey

Issue #316 ------- September 13, 2007
What we have learned from others
becomes our own by reflection.

Ralph Waldo Emerson {1803-1882}

Toddlers at the Table
The Doctrine of Paedocommunion

During the 31+ years of my ministry, one of the concerns that has inevitably arisen wherever I have labored is with regard to exactly when children may be sufficiently spiritually mature and accountable to be baptized and/or partake of the Lord's Supper. I have dealt rather extensively with the immersion aspect of this issue in Reflections #159 -- The Age of Accountability: Discerning the Moment of Discernment. I would strongly encourage the reader to take the time to review that study prior to continuing, as it examines in some depth the various factors involved in determining cognitive awareness, which is absolutely essential to proper participation in both baptism and the Lord's Supper.

In this current issue of Reflections I would like to direct our deliberation to what is commonly known within theological circles as Paedocommunion, a somewhat technical term which simply signifies participation in the Communion by children. At what point a child may be "admitted to the sacrament" of the Eucharist (as the Roman Catholic Church might phrase it) has long been a point of debate, often rather heated, among religious scholars, and it is one that has been waged in virtually every Christian denomination. Within many Church of Christ congregations this question has also surfaced, and I have personally heard a good many different perspectives promoted by leaders within our own fellowship.

Most brethren take the position that one is not a proper candidate for participation until after baptism. They reason: what possible meaning could this memorial meal have for one who has not accepted the gift of the atoning sacrifice of Christ Jesus? One of the central aspects of the Lord's Supper is a remembering, by those who have been covered by His cleansing blood, of what He has done for them. For those who are not yet covered by this divine flowing, whether it is because they have not yet reached the "age of accountability" or because they have refused, for whatever reason, to embrace that propitiation, would this memorial meal have any real spiritual or personal significance for them? Nevertheless, most congregations within our own faith-heritage (as well as some other Christian groups) do not practice a "closed communion." In other words, there are no "Supper Sheriffs" seeking to guard the elements from "the unworthy." Each person determines within their own heart whether or not to partake of the elements on any given occasion. This is known as "open communion." In a closed environment, however, others make this determination of worthiness for each potential participant. I have never seen this practiced in Churches of Christ, although it wouldn't shock me to learn that a few ultra-conservative factions might actually do so. If they do, however, I'm unaware of it.

With regard to the participation in the Lord's Supper of either children or the unbaptized, the reality is that the NT writings are utterly silent on the matter. If, in fact, silence = prohibition, as the CENI hermeneutists boldly assert, then these two groups (children prior to the age of accountability and the unimmersed) are forbidden access to the elements. Most discerning disciples of Christ do not accept this so-called "law of silence," however. Therefore, silence cannot truly be used as a basis for formulating binding doctrine and practice on who may or may not participate in the Communion. So, how do we make that determination? I personally believe that the answer lies in perceiving the purpose of the Lord's Supper. Once that purpose is determined, then one will have a much better understanding of who it is our Lord desires to be participants in this event. A quick review by the reader of Reflections #55 -- The Lord's Supper: Perceiving its Purpose -- might be in order at this point, although I will be briefly enumerating the points made therein within the body of this present study.

Before going any farther in this study, let me share with you a small portion of an email from a reader in the great state of Texas. This will illustrate why such a study as the present one is important -- there are a lot of people who truly wonder about the question of children observing this memorial. This is further complicated by the fact that the Jewish Passover (from which the Lord's Supper was taken, to some extent) was a family meal, one in which the children took an active part. The Lord's Supper, as practiced in the early church, was also connected closely with a fellowship meal (a "love feast" -- "The Agape") observed in homes, during which the whole household would undoubtedly have participated in some way or another. With this in mind, this brother from Texas wrote: "Brother Maxey, I've been pondering the propriety of allowing my four-year-old daughter to start taking the Lord's Supper. You see, I want my daughter to learn the meaning behind the rituals that we go through on Sunday. I want them to have meaning for her. I don't want them to be just 'adult' things. I know the Lord's Supper is a Christian memorial. Therefore, it is inappropriate for non-Christians to partake. But, does a 4-year-old, who believes in Jesus as much as any four-year-old possibly can, qualify? I realize that I can give her a theoretical understanding of what is going on simply by teaching. However, I believe that there is experiential value in actual participation. So I picture my wife and me talking to her about the communion and telling her that when the crackers and grape juice pass by, then we are to think about Jesus dying on the cross. We can also tell her that the juice looks like blood, so we think about His blood, and that the crackers look like skin, so we think about His body. I think she can probably understand these elementary principles. And then, as she grows older, we can deepen the lessons. And yet, I'm hesitant to actually do this, for I have always been taught that the Lord's Supper, just like baptism, is for adult believers. What are your thoughts? Would I be cheapening the Lord's Supper or miseducating her by letting her partake? Is there some biblical teaching that would preclude her participation?"

As was alluded to above, there are some disciples of Jesus, those who argue for the participation of children in the Lord's Supper, who point to the example of the Passover. Most biblical scholars feel rather strongly that children were present at the table in this spiritually significant memorial feast. Extra-biblical sources, such as the Talmud, however, indicate that infants did not eat of the Passover lamb, and that young children did not drink of the wine, but this was merely a matter of tradition, and had no actual basis in OT Scripture. In Exodus 12:26-27 we see the children asking the parents questions regarding the meaning and significance of the Passover meal, which indicates they were at least observers, if not participants. Thus, although Jewish tradition suggests children were part of the observance (with the exceptions noted above), there is really no definitive teaching on such in the Bible. Our information is largely extra-biblical. The same is true with respect to the observance of the Lord's Supper in homes during the time of the apostolic church. It is likely the children were at least present at the table, but the extent of their participation is left largely to speculation. What we do learn from the Exodus 12 passage, however, and this has bearing on our current study, is that at some point in their intellectual and spiritual development the children became aware enough to begin asking about the significance of the Passover. Prior to this point in their cognitive development, the various elements of this commemorative meal would have held no real spiritual meaning for them. They were simply too young and immature to comprehend the eternal truths conveyed by the individual elements of this yearly event. Yes, they were clearly aware of it on a very rudimentary level, but certainly not yet on a level that would bring the event into historical, eternal and personal perspective.

In the fascinating field of Early Childhood Education, with which my wife, Shelly, has been involved for several decades, the importance of "age appropriate" and/or "developmentally appropriate" activities and behaviors is often noted when measuring the "milestones" of a child's progress. Young children are capable of absorbing incredible amounts of information (more so than adults), but the ability to conceptualize this information into a viable world-view is a cognitive milestone that comes somewhat later in their development. Again, this takes us back to the "age of accountability" issue, a point in one's development when they truly begin to become aware of eternal, as well as temporal, realities, and the interrelating of the two (and their own place within both). Yes, a four-year-old may well have the capacity to appreciate the fact that grape juice somewhat resembles blood and that the "cracker" may somewhat resemble skin. Much beyond this, however, would be a real challenge for them. They most certainly do not have the ability to comprehend the suffering and sacrifice of Jesus, God's Son, on a cross for our sins. The idea of atonement is beyond them. Substitutionary death is a phrase that will only bring a blank stare. It's like the Bible class teacher who explained to her class of 3-4 year olds about Jesus on the cross. After the story she paused and said to one of the students, "So, what do you think, Johnny?" Little Johnny thought for a second, fidgeted a bit, and then said, "My dog threw up yesterday." The point? -- there are simply some things their young, developing minds are just not yet ready to grasp, even though they may be able to absorb, and even repeat, certain basic facts.

When examining the purpose of the Lord's Supper, one very quickly finds that it is multi-faceted. Failing to perceive this purpose results in the invalidation of the observance for that particular person. The apostle Paul made this abundantly clear in his rebuke of the attitudes and actions of the Corinthian brethren. These were men and women who had largely lost sight of the great spiritual significance of this sacred event. "Therefore," he wrote, "when you meet together, it is NOT to eat the Lord's Supper" [1 Cor. 11:20]. Were they partaking of the bread and the fruit of the vine? Yes, they were. But, their failure to perceive the purpose of this time together led to a mere eating of bread and drinking of wine. When one is not aware of what one is doing, then the event becomes meaningless. Paul told them they may indeed have been going through the motions of eating the bread and drinking the fruit of the vine, but the Lord's Supper was NOT being observed. What does this tell us, brethren? It tells us that if you give the elements to one who has no understanding of their spiritual significance, that person has NOT observed the Lord's Supper ... they've merely consumed crackers and grape juice. The same is true, by the way, with baptism. If they were not personally, consciously, spiritually aware of what they were doing when baptized, they simply "got wet." Awareness is critical, otherwise we merely go through the motions of a meaningless ritual.

As previously mentioned, the Lord's Supper is multi-faceted, a meaningful event impacting virtually every area of our Christian experience. It is also important that with an understanding of the purpose and significance of the Lord's Supper comes the putting of these understandings into daily action. The Lord's Supper is not a passive memorial, but rather an event calling Christians to action! Bro. Ted H. Waller wrote, "To observe the rite of communion without living the purposes which this rite celebrates cannot avoid making our observance of the rite a pretense" [Worship That Leads Men Upward, p. 45]. Thus, the participant must not only perceive the purpose of the Lord's Supper, he or she must also ACT upon that which they have perceived. To live these great truths in one's daily life is clearly beyond the ability of a four-year-old. Notice briefly the seven aspects of the Communion that, taken together, constitute its purpose:

  1. Memorial of Christ --- A memorial, according to the dictionary, is "anything meant to help people remember some person or event." After instituting the Lord's Supper, Jesus told His disciples, "Do this in remembrance of Me" [Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24-25]. This memorial should ever keep alive in our hearts and minds what Jesus Christ has done, and continues to do, for each of us! It is an act of remembrance that continually keeps before us both who He was and what He did, and makes us appreciate anew our relationship with Jesus. Barclay writes that the greatest significance of this time of remembering is that "the memory turns into an experience and an encounter." In a very real sense we encounter our Lord face to face in this memorial; a personal experience with our Lord and His sacrifice that should "end in renewed dedication." "No such experience can end in anything other than a renewed pledge to the One whom we have encountered" [William Barclay, The Lord's Supper, p. 112-113]. At what point in the developmental process of a human being is a person capable of such? It seems to me this is a question that needs to be answered before one presumes to partake of the elements.

  2. Occasion of Thanksgiving --- The word Eucharist comes from the Greek word eucharisteo, which means, "to give thanks." On the night that our Lord established the Lord's Supper, Scripture says that He "gave thanks" before distributing the elements [Matthew 26:26-27; Mark 14:22-23; Luke 22:17-19; 1 Corinthians 11:24]. Ignatius [died about 110 A.D.], in writing about the Lord's Supper, says, "Seek, then, to come together more frequently to give thanks and glory to God" [Epistle to the Ephesians 13:1]. The earliest recorded Eucharistic prayers (recorded in the Didache) are almost entirely prayers of thanksgiving. Therefore, the Lord's Supper should be a special time when we each give thanks to God and to Christ for the love and sacrifice that made our redemption possible. At what point is a person able to offer up an expression of heartfelt thanksgiving for his/her redemption from sin and death? From what has a four-year-old been redeemed? Are they even aware of what redemption is? How does one give thanks for that which one does not even know exists?

  3. Public Proclamation --- "For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes" [1 Corinthians 11:26]. The Lord's Supper is an opportunity to teach. We preach a sermon every time we partake of the elements. It is a public testimony not only to ourselves, of the reality we have embraced by faith, but also a witness to those who have yet to embrace our Great Redeemer. It's a message delivered by the redeemed. It would be meaningless for the unredeemed to proclaim such a message by their observance of a memorial whose Substance they have thus far refused to embrace. "It is the Word proclaimed in dramatic action" [William Barclay, p. 110]. At what point does a young child comprehend the significance of this public proclamation of the redeeming power of the shed blood of God's Son upon the cross? At what point are they truly capable, cognitively, of declaring that message to those about them; not only through this action, but through their very lives?

  4. Expression of Confident Expectation --- The apostle Paul wrote, "For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes" [1 Corinthians 11:26]. In the gospel records Jesus says that He will not drink again of the cup until He "drinks it new with you in My Father's kingdom" [Matthew 26:29; Mark 14:25; Luke 22:16, 18], which most biblical scholars feel refers to the end of time when He will sit down with His disciples at the great wedding festivities [Isaiah 25:6; Matthew 8:11; Luke 22:29-30; Revelation 19:9]. Christians are a people with a glorious future! In the Lord's Supper we proclaim His death until He comes, which declares that He is alive and He intends to return for His people! "Here in ringing tones there is expressed the eschatological hope of the Christian. In the Lord's Supper we at one and the same time remember the past sacrifice of our Lord and affirm our certainty of His coming triumph. There's nothing within the Christian worship that so clearly looks to the past, the present and the future, as the Lord's Supper does" [Barclay, p. 110]. At what point does a child begin to truly comprehend, much less eagerly long for, this return of Christ Jesus to claim His bride? Can one truly express with any conviction that which one does not perceive?

  5. Time of Self-Examination --- Paul wrote to the quarreling Corinthians, "Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord" [1 Corinthians 11:27]. "For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself, if he does not judge the body rightly" [1 Corinthians 11:29]. In light of the numerous abuses that were occurring, Paul says, "But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup" [1 Corinthians 11:28]. "If we judged ourselves rightly, we should not be judged" [1 Corinthians 11:31]. At the time of the Passover all the leaven had to be cleaned out of the house. Now, "Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth" [1 Corinthians 5:7-8]. These passages clearly, and strongly, suggest that prior to one partaking of the elements of the Lord's Supper, one must be able and willing to make a careful and prayerful spiritual self-analysis. At what point does a child truly become capable of such?

  6. Time of Sharing with Christ --- Paul further writes, "Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ?" [1 Corinthians 10:16]. Some translations have participation (NIV, RSV), or communion (KJV, NKJV, ASV, Lamsa), or fellowship (Berkeley Version), but most translations use "sharing" here. This is the Greek word koinonia, which means "association, fellowship, close relationship; the common possession or enjoyment of something; a sign or proof of brotherly unity" [Arndt & Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the NT and Other Early Christian Literature, p. 438-439]. By partaking of these elements you enter into a close relationship with the One the elements represent ... i.e., Jesus Christ. In keeping with this thought, Paul warns the Corinthian brethren [1 Corinthians 10:20] that in offering sacrifices to idols one becomes associated with demons. "You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons" [1 Corinthians 10:21]. There is a very real sense in which the Lord's Supper is a visible sign of our relationship and fellowship with Jesus Christ. These passages all suggest quite emphatically that the participants in the Lord's Supper have entered into a special, spiritual relationship with the Lord, and that they are thereby far more than mere onlookers who have yet to embrace Him as the Lord of their lives.

  7. Demonstration of Unity --- The apostle Paul pointed out the significance of unity as it relates to the Lord's Supper in the following statement: "Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread" [1 Corinthians 10:17]. "The Lord's Supper, then, is understood to witness to the fact that Christians belong to a special family which includes the Son and the Father [cf. 1 John 1:3] and is marked by unity and love. It is a communion which required the death of Christ Jesus to create, and which is so close that it is as though believers were one body" [Zondervan's Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 3, p. 985]. "The Lord's Supper was designed to draw us together. It reminds us of the one thing we all have in common: A Savior who prayed for the unity of His followers on the night before His agonizing death. He died that men might be united as one body" [Dick Blackford, The Lord's Supper, p. 64]. The fact that Paul even discusses the Lord's Supper at all in the letter to the Corinthians is due to their lack of understanding on this one point of unity. The Christians in Corinth were divided; they were fighting with one another; there was strife, malice, envy, backbiting, hatred. They had become a group that was fragmented because they had focused on issues and personalities and one another's faults and failings, instead of focusing on Christ! "Therefore (as a result of this divisiveness) when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord's Supper" [1 Corinthians 11:20].

Brethren, I may be wrong here, and if so please show me, but it is very difficult for me to imagine that a four-year-old can even come close to the level of spiritual maturity and awareness necessary to fully appreciate and apply the purposes of the Lord's Supper. Frankly, in my view, is would almost make a mockery of this event. The reader from Texas asked, "Would I be cheapening the Lord's Supper or miseducating her by letting her partake?" Yes, I believe you would. The Lord's Supper is assuredly one of the most spiritually significant events in the life of the redeemed. As was previously noted, it impacts virtually every area of our Christian experience. When describing some of the aspects of his personal worshipful expression, Paul wrote, "I shall pray with the spirit and I shall pray with the mind also; I shall sing with the spirit and I shall sing with the mind also" [1 Cor. 14:15]. He then gave this admonition: "Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; yet in evil be babes, but in your thinking be mature" [vs. 20]. There are several very important lessons being taught here, but without a doubt one of them is the need for maturity and understanding in one's offering up of worship. Jesus condemned those who worshipped only with lips, but not with their hearts [Matt. 15:8-9]. I believe this would apply just as much to the Lord's Supper as to singing and praying.

To this father (and all fathers and mothers) I would simply say, in the words of Paul, bring up your little girl, who at this point is just a babe, "in the discipline and instruction of the Lord" [Eph. 6:4]. Train her up in the way she should go in life [Prov. 22:6], and pray for her daily. Live Jesus before her; talk of Him; display Him in your own life. "These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up" [Deut. 6:6-7]. Do this, parents, and when your little boy or girl reaches that point in his or her life where they can truly perceive the realities of which you have been speaking and living for as long as they can remember, they will make, we pray, the decision to submit themselves to His will for their lives. We can't make that choice for them; it must be theirs alone! Guide them as they grow to that moment of accountability before their God (which only He truly knows for each individual), and let them be babes while they are still babes (and enjoy them); all too soon they will be faced with the sobering choices of life. Your actions and attitudes in their early formative years will prove critical to the choices they ultimately make. May God give you wisdom as you mold these precious little souls into the type of people who will one day take their place at the Table of our Lord as active, perceptive participants.

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Readers' Reflections

From a Christian Church Pastor in California:

Bro. Al, In your Reflections article, "Pondering the Periodicals," you wrote, "Yes, singing unaccompanied is a matter of preference, for the simple reason there is nothing in Scripture declaring such to be a divine precept. If God chose neither to prescribe nor proscribe, then this matter, by divine default, becomes a matter of human judgment and/or preference." Al, in those two sentences you condensed 100+ years of division in our faith-heritage. Those who can agree on this principle will take unity, grace and cooperation to a whole new level among us. Those who won't accept this principle will never be united with anyone! No rocket science here! Thanks for stating it so clearly. You hit a home run! It is so exciting to me to see so many within the Churches of Christ come to realize and grasp what those of us in the Christian Churches have lived by for a long time. I truly never thought I'd see it in my lifetime. But with you, and others like you, leading the way, it's finally happening -- and I'm lovin' it. It is all so very simple, yet some can't see it because they're blinded by tradition, and some won't see it because they fear the changes that must happen in their own lives. They're sharp enough to know that to accept this principle would of necessity destroy their little fiefdoms in which they rule by fear and intimidation. Thus, they will fight that change tooth and toenail to the bitter end.

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

Bro. Al, I agree that in general The Christian Chronicle is one of the best of our brotherhood papers. However, they are stuck on the question of instrumental music, and they insist on perpetuating the false teaching that has relegated "singing only" to LAW. I have a slightly different take on their pathetic efforts than you, however. By placing their straw man in writing for all to see -- and when compared with your clear teaching on the subject -- many will come to see that they have been fed misinformation most of their lives!! As you have so clearly stated: there is nothing wrong with a cappella singing. But, to make it a salvation issue is clearly beyond the bounds of common sense! Thank the Lord that many are now awakening from a long sleep and are beginning to question the party doctrine! Keep up the good work!!

From a New Reader in Tennessee:

Dear Bro. Al, We would like to be added to your mailing list for Reflections. It is so nice to see someone taking a stand for what is in the Word of God, rather than what is imposed upon the Word of God.

From a Community Church Pastor in Indiana:

Bro. Maxey, I would like to ask your permission to use one of your studies in the Minor Prophets as a handout for the members of our church. I'm referring to your examination of The Prophet Amos, which is a very concise summary of Amos, a book we are currently studying. Thank you very much!

From a Reader in Nevada:

Bro. Al, You are my treasured and appreciated brother. Stand firm before those who feel forced to throw insults at you, or who contact you with threats. Hold in there, brother, and please continue your inspiring writings for us!!

From a Minister in Kansas:

One Cup man here. Brother Al, we love you!! You will never know just how much help you have been to us in this fellowship. Don L. King lives in a small world; all patternists do. The Old Paths Advocate guys have always used the same tactics with regard to other Christians -- either agree with us, or you are "unfaithful." Don seems to think that the OPA bunch is the standard by which all other Christians are forever to be measured. Is it any wonder that One Cup brethren are sick and tired of their politics?! Bro. Al, perhaps one day you can come visit us here in Kansas. It would be great to have you as one of our speakers when the annual meeting returns to Wichita. May God bless you, brother.

From a New Reader in Texas:

Dear Al, I have been reading with interest some of your Reflections on the Internet. Your writings regarding the Old Paths Advocate and the One Cup Churches of Christ are especially interesting to me, since I am very pleased to be associated with this brotherhood. I will share more of my views with you later on. However, for now, I would appreciate being added to your mailing list so that I may receive your weekly Reflections. I am especially interested in what you have said, or will say, regarding the Church of Christ in Irving, Texas, who presently use one cup in the communion. Until recently, I was a member of that congregation. However, I could not stay there with them because of their innovations.

From a Reader in Alabama:

Amen, Amen and Amen, Al. Kudos to Brother Orbison and shame on the Christian Chronicle!! I used to subscribe to the Christian Chronicle, but don't any longer, so I was unaware of the ad in this latest issue. It is so wonderful to see some of the leaders in our brotherhood, like Brother Orbison, step out on faith and proclaim the Truth! There will be reprisals, as we have seen demonstrated countless times toward you, Brother Al. But, thank you for doing what you do and for being an example for others, which is obviously giving them the courage to speak out also. Again, thank you Brother Al for everything you do!

From a Reader in Texas:

Bro. Maxey, I join the chorus of those who thank you for your work and for the help you have given me in escaping legalism and discovering God's grace! Your insights are greatly appreciated.

From a Reader in Texas:

Dear Bro. Al, Thanks for all your good essays, and for your role as a conduit of ideas. I do believe that's the way the Holy Spirit works among us, as we all share a little light here and a little light there. Grace to you!

From a New Reader in Tennessee:

Bro. Al, In God's providence I found your web site a couple of weeks ago and read your article on the rich man and Lazarus -- Reflections #28. This was maybe the best work I have ever read on this subject. I have also really enjoyed reading your debate on the nature of man and final punishment -- The Maxey-Thrasher Debate. Thank you for these studies. You seem to be a man who desires to know the Truth of God's Word. Grace to you and peace!

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