Saturday, February 2, 2013

Young Child Communion & the Westminster Standards

On Interviews & Testimonies, Part V

Continued from Part IV

Q. Doesn't admitting young children violate the Westminster Standards?  Shouldn't we only admit mature believers who can understand what is happening at the Table?

Is young child communion consistent with the Westminster Standards?  Yes, I believe so.  First, consider the Westminster Confession of Faith (hereafter WCF).  No mention is made (wisely) of ages or intellectual capacity in either chapter 14 “On Saving Faith” or chapter 15 “Of Repentance unto Life.”  Furthermore, paragraph 3 of chapter 14 shows that the Westminster divines were sensitive to the fact that mature faith ought not to be made the criteria for genuine faith since saving faith “is different in degrees, weak or strong, may be often and many ways assailed and weakened, but gets the victory; growing up in many to the attainment of a full assurance through Christ, who is both the author and finisher of our faith.”  Surely it would be wrong to insist that a young covenant child give evidence of a mature faith before we count them as a genuine believer!  Genuine faith may be present in covenant children, not having as yet grown up into “the attainment of a full assurance through Christ.”  Why should such faith—weak and immature as it may be—serve as a barrier to the covenant child’s participation in the Lord’s communion meal?

The mention of assurance ought to remind us of another statement in the Confession which teaches that lack of the conviction of the assurance of faith is not necessarily evidence of the absence of saving faith.  The Confession does indeed hold out to us the goal of attaining full assurance since those believers who “truly believe in the Lord Jesus, and love him in sincerity, endeavoring to walk in all good conscience before him, may in this life be certainly assured that they are in the state of grace” (18.1), but the divines are also quick to remind us that “This infallible assurance does not so belong to the essence of faith, but that a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties, before he be partaker of it” (18.3).

It is important to keep in mind that true faith may exist without the assurance of salvation because little children often have not attained to the full assurance of salvation— and rightly so, given their limited experience with their own sin nature and the world. (Unfortunately, many older covenant children mistakenly interpret their experience of coming to full assurance—which usually occurs in their high school or college years—with their conversion.)  Thus, when a young child is asked “If you died today, do you believe that you would go to heaven,” he often gives a negative answer, not because he is not a believer, but because his faith is weak and immature.  It is for this very reason that he ought to eat dinner with Jesus at the Lord’s table—one of the purposes of the Lord’s Table being to assure us of God’s love and Jesus’ promise to nourish and take care of us as members of his family.  Children need this means of grace and assurance as much, if not more than adults do.

In WCF chapter 29, “Of the Lord’s Supper,” the confession defines “worthy receivers” as those who “outwardly partaking of the visible elements in this sacrament, do then also inwardly by faith . . . receive and feed upon Christ crucified”(29:7).  The prerequisite for partaking worthily is faith.   It is not knowledge or maturity or intellectual capacity or experience—it is faith that qualifies one to come to the Table worthily.  Are we willing to deny that our little ones have faith?  Of course, someone may say that we can’t be absolutely sure that a four-year-old’s faith is genuine.  Well, neither can we be absolutely sure of a thirty-year-old’s faith!  What counts as evidence of faith? What do we expect from adults when they are interviewed by the elders but a credible profession of their faith in Jesus Christ according to their maturity level.  We don’t establish a certain level of maturity or knowledge of theology as a prerequisite to coming to the Table.  We hear them say things like “I believe that my sins were forgiven because of Jesus death” or “I have no hope of heaven but that which is based on what Jesus has done for me” or simply “I believe Jesus died for my sins.”  We don’t look for a certain kind of experience or a predetermined level of knowledge.  We look for a simple profession of faith.  We should do the same with our young covenant children.

The next paragraph (“Of the Lord’s Supper,” 29.8) then excludes “ignorant and wicked men” from receiving the outward elements.  For either of these two classes of men to come to the Table would be truly an “unworthy coming” and plunge them into all sorts of divine judgments, temporal and eternal.  Consider the first class.  Who are the “ignorant”?  They are those outside of the church, who know not Jesus Christ.  No mention is made of a specific level of knowledge, but they are simply said to be ignorant.  Thus, they are ignorant of the Gospel and of the person and work of Jesus Christ.  Are our young covenant children ignorant in this sense?  Hardly.  They may not have attained unto the degree of knowledge at which some in the congregation have arrived, but they are certainly not ignorant of the Gospel and of Jesus Christ.

The second class of people forbidden to receive the elements, according to WCF 29.8, are “the wicked.”  This refers to both unbelievers outside of the church as well as those hypocrites inside the church who feign faith and who live licentiously.  The latter are those who have been excluded from the Table for disciplinary purposes.  Individual young covenant children may indeed be hypocritical and live licentiously, but they can hardly be categorized as a whole as “wicked” and therefore excluded from the Table. Our covenant children are, of course, sinners.  Sinners just like we are.

I often hear people say that children should not come to the table until they learn to behave, as if childishness should exclude them from partaking of this means of grace!  Sure, children act childishly.  Their sins are childish and often very visible.  A four-year-old child may manifest his own sinful heart by running through the isles of the sanctuary after church.  His parents or an elder may have to reprimand him repeatedly.  This is sinful behavior.  The question is: should such sinful behavior bar the child from the Table?  Well, maybe if it continues with no repentance or evidence of change.  But as adults we better think hard about this.  What about our persistent sins as adults. We’ve learned to hide them from people. We’ve learned to hide our sins from ourselves!  Should we be barred from the Table because we sin weekly?  Should adults who act childishly be restricted from coming to the Table?  There's no need for such drastic measures if we confess our sins each week and seek the grace of repentance in the worship service.  The lesson is this: we should be very careful about prohibiting our little ones from coming to the Communion Table merely because they manifest themselves as little sinners.

In summary, we have seen that the Westminster Confession of Faith recognizes
1) that no age limit or intellectual capacity may be used as a criteria for saving faith,
2) that faith exists in varying degrees of maturity in Christians,
3) that the assurance of faith does not belong to the essence of faith,
4) that the assurance of faith exist in various degrees and may grow,
5) that worthy receivers are those who possess faith,
6) and that those outside of the church who are ignorant of the gospel and who lead wicked lives are not to be admitted to the table.  
So far we have discovered nothing in the WCF that would prevent small children who confess their faith in and love for Jesus from being admitted to the table.

Turning now to the Westminster Catechisms, we find more explicit guidelines with regard to the sacrament of communion.  Question #168 of the Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC) echoes the WCF.   If one communes (this is equivalent to the older word “communicates”) worthily, then the sacramental elements of bread and wine truly administer what they symbolize:  “they that worthily communicate feed upon his body and blood, to their spiritual nourishment and growth in grace.”  After describing how the Supper is to be administered by the ministers and how the body and blood of Christ nourish the communicants, the catechism then takes up the question of preparation for the sacrament:
They that receive the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper are, before they come, to prepare themselves thereunto, by examining themselves of their being in Christ, of their sins and wants; of the truth and measure of their knowledge, faith, repentance; love to God and the brethren, charity to all men, forgiving those that have done them wrong; of their desires after Christ, and of their new obedience; and by renewing the exercise of these graces, by serious meditation, and fervent prayer (Q. 171). 
Are small children incapable of any of these religious acts?  They may not be able to perform them as thoroughly or to the same degree that a mature adult might, but they are in no way unable to engage in any of these activities.  Admittedly, an infant probably could not meet any of these catechetical prescriptions and so our Westminster Standards exclude them from the table.   There is no need to quote at length the next two questions, which discuss the duty of those during and after the reception of the sacrament.  Nothing listed in these answers would exclude a small child from partaking of the sacrament.   We need to be careful lest we require more from our children than we would from a new convert or an intellectually “challenged” adult!

Some have taken WLC Q. 173 to prohibit small children from coming to the table, claiming that they fall into the category of the “ignorant” (especially Francis Nigel Lee in his articles on this subject).  But the substance of the answer to Q. 173 deals with discipline cases, not with children: “Such as are found to be ignorant or scandalous, notwithstanding their profession of the faith, and desire to come to the Lord’s supper, may and ought to be kept from that sacrament, by the power which Christ has left to his church, until they receive instruction, and manifest their reformation” (emphasis mine).  Confessing Christians may be barred from the Table because of their ignorance or sin (see WCF 30.4). This refers to the church's action through the elders—what we call suspension or excommunication.  Of course, communing children are liable to suspension and even excommunication for the same reasons.  But this passage does not forbid “knowledgeable” and “godly” little children from coming to the table of the Lord.  The fact that they have not acquired mature knowledge or abstract theological competence ought not to bar them from the table, just as the absence of mature knowledge does not bar the adult new convert from the Communion Table.   Some adult believers never achieve competency in abstract theological knowledge.  Are they to be barred from the table?  What about the mentally retarded?  The elderly or senile?  Do we take the sacrament away from the elderly when they begin to lose some of the mental capacity?

Question 177 asks “Wherein do the sacraments of baptism and the Lord supper differ?”  The answer speaks to the question at hand in that it notes that baptism is to be applied “even to infants,” but the Lord’s supper “only to such as are of years and ability to examine themselves.” This is the most explicit reference in either the Confession or the Catechism to the question of small child communion.  Yet even here no age limit is set, no definitive level of knowledge is laid down; the answer simply does not concern itself with age or level of knowledge.

In conclusion, we should note that the Catechism does not make maturity a prerequisite for coming to the Table.  It is true that many of the Puritans, especially as time went on, looked for evidence of a certain kind of conversion experience or required a specific level of knowledge before admitting people to the Table, but the fact is that this passage only requires that children be “of years and ability to examine themselves” as the prerequisite for admission to the sacrament of communion.

Can young covenant children examine themselves?  The answer to this question depends on what level and depth of examination will be required of them.  Surely, four- and five-year-old children are able to examine themselves at some level.  After all, parents punish children at this age and expect them to be able to examine themselves and understand why they are being punished.

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