Friday, January 13, 2006

Meditation on Communion

Note: This is the rest of what was said nearly two years ago. In it, I tried to explain what Larger Catechism, Qs 176-7, mean and especially how to distinguish between the participants in baptism and Supper. I still believe this provides a good explaination of what the catechism and our Book of Church Order teaches.

Lord's Supper
Since we have these two sacraments together, indeed side-by-side, it is a good time to ask the questions: how are baptism and the Lord's Supper similar? And how are they different?

Our Larger Catechism (Q. 176) teaches us that baptism and the Supper are similar in several ways. First, God is the author of both. The focus of both is Christ and his benefits. Both are seals of the same covenant, the same promises. Each is to be done by ordained ministers of the gospel and by none other. And each is to be continued in the church until the end of the age.

But the next question (Q. 177) spells out how these two are different. Some of the differences are obvious, or at least, should be. Baptism happens, or should happen, only once in a person's life; the Lord's Supper is to be administered often, in our church on the second and last Sundays of the month. Baptism uses water; the Supper uses bread and wine.

But other differences are more important. The Catechism says that baptism is a "sign and seal of our regeneration and ingrafting into Christ," a grace that is conferred in God's appointed time and that evidences itself in a full-hearted turn to Christ as Savior and Lord. The Lord's Supper, on the other hand, is received those who have already begun the journey of faith, "to confirm our continuance and growth" in Jesus Christ.

Or I could put it like this. Remember I said that baptism is like a road sign, a royal seal, and a jersey that marks the baptized on a different team. That last descriptor is important here. Baptism initiates our children into the visible people of God, into the church people, and into the care of the church and all the benefits that brings. But the Lord's Supper has a different focus; it serves to assure our hearts that as surely as we partake of bread and wine, so surely did Christ die for our sins.

As a result, our Larger Catechism teaches us that baptism is rightly administered "even to infants," as we have just done. Because they belong to our households of faith, they should belong in a visible way to THE household of faith; and baptism initiates them into God's visible people. But the Catechism also teaches us that the Supper is to be administered "only to such as are of years and ability to examine themselves." The emphasis here is not upon adult-only communion but on professing believers-only communion. Our catechism "presumes" that infants or toddlers cannot examine themselves of "their being in Christ" (LC 172), that is, to recognize their sinfulness and turn to faith in Jesus Christ. As a result, our church does not admit children to the table that have not made a profession of faith; not because they are children, but because faith in Jesus Christ is required for a worthy reception of the Supper.

Does this mean that our children are somehow second-class citizens in the church because they don't receive the Supper? That somehow they are "excommunicated" because they "barred from the table"? By no means. First of all, our children receive wonderful privileges as members of God's visible people, being identified with the baptized team: the weekly preaching of God's Word; the oversight of the elders and the nurture of God's people; and the safety of being in the place where God's promises are regularly fulfilled.

But also, we must recognize that our PCA Book of Church Order instructs us to invite all who are not participating in the Supper to remain. We don't typically do so, simply because we "presume" that no one will leave before the service is over. But the instruction is still important: there is great value in this meal for those who do not partake: the Word, indeed the Gospel of Jesus' body and blood shed for sinners, is proclaimed, both verbally by the minister and in the sign itself, Isn't that what Paul tells us, that in this meal "you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes"?

As parents, we should be telling, we should be catechizing, our children in a whisper as the elements pass, "Little one, what does the broken bread teach us?" "That Jesus in his life in the body gained a perfect righteousness for his people. That Jesus' bodily life was pointed to the cross where he died for sinners like me, Daddy."

"Sweetheart, what does the poured out wine teach us?""That Jesus shed his blood on the cross for sinners like me, and without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins, Daddy."

"My child, what is necessary to gain right standing with God and to have your sins forgiven?""Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved, Daddy."

That, my friends, is the proper grounds for your participation in this meal this morning. If you have confessed your faith in Jesus Christ and are a member either of this particular church or another evangelical church, we invite you to come to this meal. This meal is for professing believers who recognize that together we proclaim Christ's death until he comes.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Sean, normally I find you extremely compelling, brilliant, and thorough, but on the issue of paedocommunion or covenant communion, your post falls woefully short of Biblical argumentation. Although you are giving attention to the catechism's teaching and not looking at the Biblical evidence, it seems that your love for Westminster overrides your love for Scripture on this one issue. You do correctly represent the catechism's teaching but you also avoid the WCF's apparent contradiction in 27.1 which tells us that the sacraments are to put a visible difference between those within the church and those outside the church, thus rendering those not admitted to the table as outside the church (contradicting the WCF teaching in 25.1 that children are in the visible church).

Here are a few reasons why paedocommunion should be seen as a Biblical teaching of the church.

1) Just as in baptism, the weight of church history points to the practice of paedocommunion from the earliest times. It was only stopped when the Catholics became afraid that careless children would spill the body and blood of Christ on the ground, stemming from their doctrine of transubstantiation.

2) The Reformers never gave this matter a serious and thoughtful review. Now that it is getting attention, the numbers of covenant communion are growing rapidly with the Biblical evidence.

3) Weaned children were involved in the sacrificial meals of the OT and just as in baptism, there is no command barring them from the NT meal. Thus the burden of proof is on those who would go against church history and covenant continuity.

4) This burden of proof can hardly be met by I Cor. 11:28, the only verse that could possibly stand in the way of communing our children. This verse in no way speaks of children, thus violating the universe of discourse by making Paul speak to them here. Paul does not have children on his mind here and to put them here would be the equivalent of keeping our children from eating because they do not work for a living (since Paul says "If a man will not work, he shall not eat"). We use this same argument in arguing for covenant baptism against those who claim that the NT formula is Repent, believe, and then be baptized. We rightly respond that the apostle is speaking to unconverted ADULTS, not children. I Corinthians 10-11 is all about unifying the body at the table, not dividing the weakest, most fragile members from among us. Thus, to take one verse out of context which does not speak in any way of children and use it to bar them from the table is hermeneutically unconscienable.

5) You claim that the Supper is only for those "already on the journey of faith." Reading Psalm 22, 71, 139, and others we see that the Psalmist's faith began in the womb (these are psalms meant to be sung in corporate worship by the body). Jesus says that the Kingdom of Heaven itself belongs to these children, so why not the signs and seals of this Kingdom. According to Jesus, the Psalmist, and Paul (I Cor. 10:1-4) covenant children who are baptized are already on the journey of faith. If David has faith in the womb and at the breast, why is it automatically assumed that our children can have no faith after they are weaned?

6) Where does the Bible require a "profession of faith" or age of accountabitly? Nowhere. How is this doctrine applied to the mentally handicapped who cannot articulate faith like us or the elderly person growing senile in old age? Is the person with Alzheimer's to be suddenly barred from the Table for lack of proper profession? Or is the mentally handicapped person to be kept from the demonstration of the Gospel they are most likely to understand? Moreover, the BCO does not give detail as to how such barring from the Table is to take place. It simply leaves this decision to the discretion of the elders. Thus, chilren may be allowed to the Table by saying, "Jesus loves me and I love Him," or by having to recite the catechism and a descriptive testimony of faith in Christ. The lack of guidelines here betray the shortfall of Biblical evidence to keep children from the Table of their Heavenly Father.

7) This idea that faith is something that cannot be possessed until a certain age/level of understanding and articulation is a product of enlightenment/rationalist thinking, not from the Bible. We all recognize children's capacity for relationship and trust from the earliest days as they recognize their parents and recoil from strangers. Thus, they are capable of relationship with God (again see the Psalms and Jesus' words). Relegating faith to 'articulation' is insulting to the Biblical evidence, which there is not space to cite.

8) You would have us believe that our children are not second-class citizens in the church because they are baptized, catechized, and taught. Yet this makes the distinction even sharper between those not allowed and those who are allowed. The children are saying, Daddy, why doesn't Jesus want to eat with me? why didn't Jesus die for me? (actual quotes from children). They are wondering how as baptized, not under discipline, praying, singing, members of the church they can be excluded from the meal of the church. Sadly, you cannot give a good answer to your children as to why they can't partake when they want to so badly.

9) The most offensive part of your post is that you show your children answering that they know and believe in Jesus death for sinners like them, and yet you would still keep them from the Table. The children are not taught that they are those for whom Christ died by watching the bread and wine pass by! How can that make any sense? They are taught that Jesus died for them by taking the break and wine. The Supper provides an active and visible proclamation of the Gospel for children that we deny them when we say it is not for them.

10) How does keeping our children from the Table comport with our understanding of God's Fatherhood? Why do we take our children to worship, teach them to sing, teach them to pray (do we suspect that God does not hear their prayers since they haven't begun the "journey of faith") "Our Father," and then tell them that their Father does not want to feed them until they are more mature, more able, more articulate, more intellectual, etc. Why are we teaching them to pray and worship when they apparently do not have faith, do not have a relationship to Christ, do not have an understanding of the Gospel, etc? My own son is now 10 months old and we have been teaching him hymns, the Lord's Prayer, and even the catechism since he was in the womb. I dread the day when the bread and wine come to our row, he reaches out to partake, and I have to steal it from his hands and somehow explain that he's not ready for a real relationship with his Heavenly Father. I dread the day (I have shed tears over this) when I have to tell him that though he is asking for bread, his Father will give him a stone or worse yet His Father will make Him a spectator while the rest of God's children eat with the Lord.

Lastly, when we keep children from their Father's food, we reverse Jesus' own words. Jesus taught that we must become like children to enter the Kingdom, but we teach that children must first become like adults. How sad.

Sean Lucas said...

Hi, Jeremy:

Thanks for stopping by. I appreciate the compliments at the beginning of your post, but I must say that I'm a little dismayed by your tone throughout it. It seems like you are pretty convinced for your position, which I completely respect. In most presbyteries, paedocommunion is an allowable exception to the Standards; I've even helped others developing their exception to LC 177 in ways that would pass presbytery's or session's muster. And so, I'm not sure that I'm in any way deserving of the tone that you use here. I certainly wouldn't deem something that is connected to someone's parenting "offensive"; I actually view our family practice as similar to what you describe about catechizing your own children.

That being said, I'm not really certain that your points here are all that convincing. For example, historically speaking, I disagree that the Reformers "never gave the matter thoughtful or serious review"; Calvin was certainly aware of the practice and spoke strongly against. Likewise, it comes up in conversations related to "worthy reception" and "fencing the table"--the requirement of faith for a worthy reception of the Supper was a matter of huge importance in the Reformation and impacts this question greatly.

Moreover, as someone who teaches church history for a living, I know how hard it is to make a claim for "the weight of church history" for a particular practice. If you want to make that claim, then the weight of church history is for also seeing baptism as taking away the guilt of sin and a host of other beliefs and practices. I always counsel my students to be careful in what claims they make from a historical point of view.

Further, you chid me for not offering biblical support for what I said (which I'd remind you was a brief homily before the Lord's Supper, not a full blown sermon or essay), and yet there is not a whole lot of biblical evidence in what you write either. I think part of the reason is that the NT, especially, doesn't have a whole lot to say (taken together) about sacraments, but it does have a whole lot to say about faith in Jesus. In my own ministry, I try to keep the main thing the main thing; and with my children, it is the same.

At the end of the day, I understand these are deeply personal issues; I can tell that you feel deeply about them and I affirm your liberty of conscience to hold these positions in this way. However, I don't agree with your position and believe that the long-term ramifications of them are actually unhelpful, both for Christian nurture and for the life of the church. I hope that you can affirm my own right to hold and teach what is in fact the position of the doctrinal standards to which I've subscribed.

Best wishes,
Sean

Anonymous said...

Sean,

This is Jeremy; I'm still having trouble with my account (I have no idea what I'm doing!)

Let me begin by apologizing for my post. I very passionately wrote it, did not edit, it, and posted it without further review. After rereading it, I am ashamed of the arrogant, deameaning, and condemning tone. I certainly consider you a brother in Christ and affirm your right to hold and practice your position, which is the majority position in the PCA and most other reformed denominations. Please forgive my harsh comments in the post above and thank you for your gracious response.

Having said that, let me briefly address your response. On church history....I'm certainly not arguing that b/c paedocommunion was the historical practice of the church, that it should necessarily be our practice or that it must be exegetically true. My argument is that the children participated in the O.T. and the early church, thus the preponderence of evidence puts the burden of proof on those who would keep our children from the Table. I don't see how a verse like I Cor. 11:28 which doesn't speak about or to children can bear such a heavy burden to make the New Covenant less inclusive than the Old.

In addition, I did not intend to "chide" you for your lack of Scripture; I understand that you are writing briefly (I think I mentioned that at the beginning), and I think you understand that I'm not going to make my long response even longer by going into detailed exegesis, though I think that's been well covered by others.

Furthermore, the last thing I want to do is call your parenting offensive. I have no doubt that you are a better and more instructive parent than I could ever be. My point was the inconsistency between giving our children every spiritual blessing except the Supper. I find it hard to understand why we would teach our children to pray "our Father," take them to church, teach them to worship, allow them to sing, show them how to pray in Jesus' name, baptize them, but then forbid them from the Table. Does God hear the prayers of our children? In other words, if our kids can participate in every other aspect of our religion, why not this one? I find it inconsistent to teach them to pray "our Father," but then tell them that their Father won't feed them today. Also, I didn't see how, if children can recite the Gospel better than me, they should still be kept from the Table.

Finally, while I realize that my points were brief, I don't believe you really responded to 4 and following, which were the strongest parts of the argument. I think the big questions are how can I Cor. 11:28 meet the burden of proof laid on it? How do the Psalms mentioned, Jesus' words, and Paul's discussion speak to our children's faith? How does the Kingdom itself belong to our children and not the signs of that Kingdom? Where are the Biblical requirements for how elders are to admit children? If the reality of Christ's death is for our children, why not the symbols of that reality? Does 'faith' have to be defined so that our chidren can be described as not being on the journey of faith (enlightenment view)? How does letting the bread and wine pass our children by teach them that Jesus' death is for them as opposed to letting them see it, hold it, eat it, and drink it with continued parental explanation? Finally, how does this comport with God's Fatherhood which we teach them?

I understand that this is your blog, and you may not want to spend time on this. That's totally fine. Thank you for your response so far and please forgive me for the tone of my earlier post.