STUDIES IN EXODUS No. 13
Exodus 12:1-4, 14-16, 24-28, 37, 47-49
June 19, 2005
Sermon by Dr. Robert S. Rayburn
We considered the burden of this text last time: both the Passover history itself and the commemoration of that history in an annual feast. But there is an issue hidden here in this text that has recently surfaced in Reformed and Presbyterian churches and, insofar as we have not considered this question in some time and insofar as it bears quite profoundly on our practice here at Faith Presbyterian Church, and insofar as other PCA congregations do not approve of our practice, I thought I should not pass by this text without taking note of this issue. As you may know, Exodus 12 is one of the key texts in the current debate concerning the participation of covenant children in the Lord’s Supper, the practice known as paedocommunion after its counterpart, paedobaptism. Circumcision was given to covenant infants and so baptism ought to be given to them today. Such is the position called paedobaptism – that is the baptism of children, paedo coming from the Greek word for child – and that is the conviction and practice of our church. We baptize the infant children of believers. Paedobaptism.
But for centuries now, indeed from the origin of the Reformed church during the Protestant Reformation, although paedobaptism was practiced and defended as a part of the Bible’s teaching and the church’s practice that has crucial implications for the spiritual welfare of the church’s children, it has been our custom to withhold the Lord’s Supper from covenant children. The thought has been that they should be old enough and intellectually mature enough meaningfully to participate in the sacrament. It is this practice that has led to our dividing the membership of the church – that is the baptized people in our congregations into two groups: the communicants – those who participate in the Lord’s Supper – and the non-communicants – those who do not. In Reformed churches traditionally, including those in which I was born and raised, and, indeed, in this congregation earlier in his history, one did not “join the church,” which is to say, one did not become a communicant member and begin participating in the Lord’s Supper until he or she was 14 years of age or so. It was never a rule that one had to be at least that old, but it was common practice and had been for centuries.
Several considerations have recently led a number of men in Reformed and Presbyterian churches to call that longstanding practice of withholding the Lord’s Supper from covenant children into question. I was, some years ago, the chairman of the study committee appointed to consider the new arguments for paedocommunion being offered by Presbyterian Church in America men and I wrote the minority report for that study committee, the report defending paedocommunion. That was some 15 years ago now and at that time the church voted by a large majority to maintain its practice. Through the years since many more men have changed their minds on the question and, I suspect, the vote, if taken today, would be much closer than it was in the late 1980s. In any case, those arguing for paedocommunion, that covenant children should be brought to the Lord’s Table as soon as they are weaned took note of these facts.
First, the early church practiced paedocommunion and, so far as the evidence goes, practiced it from the earliest times. Reformed and other paedobaptists have always argued that the evidence for paedobaptism in the early church is a strong argument that paedobaptism was the teaching of the apostles and the practice of the apostolic church. But the early church also practiced paedocommunion. I confess that I didn’t know that – that the early church practiced paedocommunion – until years into my ministry. When I discovered that this was true, it set me to thinking new thoughts. Surely the evidence that the church’s children received the Lord’s Supper in early Christianity serves as a powerful argument that paedocommunion was the teaching of the apostles and the practice of the apostolic church. Indeed, paedocommunion was the general practice of the church until the 12th century, when superstitious ideas about the sacrament – the wine actually becoming the blood of Christ and so on – began to work against the full participation of anybody but priests in the sacrament. The children lost the Supper when everyone else lost it; they just didn’t get it back at the Reformation. Now, in the interests of fairness, I should tell you that some have tried to argue that the evidence for paedocommunion as a widespread practice in early Christianity is inconclusive, but it is important to point out that almost all opponents of the practice both during the Reformation era and in our own day have admitted that it was the practice of the early church. That, obviously, is something to consider.
Second, the argument against paedocommunion at the time of the Reformation was very superficial. In fact, if you go looking to see why the Reformers did not restore the Table to covenant children, you will be disappointed at how little effort was made to defend this decision. Almost no one was clamoring for children to participate in the Lord’s Supper and the Reformers had any number of other pressing issues to deal with. It is not surprising, really, that you can’t find more than a page here or there devoted to the question. To my knowledge, and I and others have looked hard for it, there is not a single book devoted to the question pro or con until our own day. In many great works of Christian theology, even in many books on the Lord’s Supper, there is no mention of the question and no defense of the practice of excluding covenant children. It was a custom so completely accepted that hardly anyone ever gave it a thought. I don’t remember the matter ever coming up in a seminary class or ever coming across an argument in favor of paedocommunion until I was well into my ministry. It was a custom carried over from the medieval church with little or no reflection and became a habit in the Reformed churches, so much a habit that it was not thought necessary to provide a justification for it.
Third, when an argument was provided, it was almost always solely a reference to 1 Cor. 11:28 and to Paul’s requirement that people examine themselves before partaking of the Lord’s Supper. In the mind of the church the argument reduced to this simple syllogism: people should examine themselves before coming to the Supper; little children cannot examine themselves; therefore little children should not take the Lord’s Supper. If you find an argument against paedocommunion in a work of Reformed theology – you usually don’t, but if you do – it will be this argument and almost never anything else. I confess that I knew that that was the argument for our practice and it satisfied me, until I thought about it for the first time. The only time we ever had to haul that argument out and deploy it, in any event, was when Baptists accused us of inconsistency. Baptists have always argued that if we baptized babies we should give them the Supper too and we replied – very weakly I now think – that the reason we didn’t do this was that there was this additional requirement that Paul laid down for participation in the Lord’s Supper.
The problem with the appeal to 1 Cor. 11:28 is three-fold and, in my judgment, each of these three objections by itself is enough to render Paul’s statement about self-examination irrelevant to the question of paedocommunion.
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