Too Young for Communion?
I have heard many pastors say that one should not take communion unless one truly believes in the meaning behind the ritual. How does this apply to children? I believe that very young children cannot comprehend the depth of Christ's sacrifice; while they can believe in God and Jesus, they are not mature enough to understand what His sacrifice means to us. 1 Corinthians 11:26 says, "For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death till He comes." In Deuteronomy 1:39, it says: "(Y)our little ones and your children ... today have no knowledge of good and evil."
How could a child who has not reached the age of accountability, and cannot discern good and evil, make the proclamation of Christ's death and it's meaning?
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Thank you for this good question. I've had to struggle with this myself - not only as a pastor but as a father concerned for my own children. I've had to wrestle with the question of when children should be allowed to participate in the Lord's Supper. Many sincere Christians differ on this matter; but I'll do my best to give you my opinion.
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First, let's begin by thinking about what the marvelous ceremony of the Lord's Supper (or "Communion" or "the Eucharist") means. I would suggest that what a church understands it to mean will have a direct impact on how that church believes it should be practiced - and who it believes should participate in it.
In the Catholic tradition, Jesus' words are taken literally: "This is my body" and "This is my blood." Catholics teach that, while the appearance of the bread and wine remain the same, they are changed in substance into the actual body and actual blood of Jesus in the ritual of the Mass. (Lutheran theology similarly takes those words to be literal. It teaches, however, that Jesus is actually present in, with, and under the bread and wine; but not that the bread and wine actually change into the body and blood of Jesus.)
The Catholic Mass, therefore, is viewed as a resacrifice of the actual body and blood of Jesus; and the bread and wine are to be adored as such. As a sacrament, it is viewed as nourishment for the soul - one that actually unites the partaker with Christ; and each Mass is viewed as a resacrificing of the body and blood of Jesus for the atonement of sins. Theologically, the Catholic sacrament of the Eucharist is viewed to work "ex opere operato" (which means, "by the work performed"). In other words, it's effectiveness in imparting God's grace is more dependent on the correct performance of the act than on the faith of the one participating in it.
Reformed (or Protestant) churches reject the idea that the bread and juice are the same in substance as the actual body and blood of the Savior. They do not take Jesus' words to mean that the bread and wine literally become His body and blood; and so they do not view the Lord's Supper as a resacrificing of Christ's body and blood, but rather as a commemoration of the body and blood of Jesus once sacrificed on the cross. Reformed churches thus understand the Lord's Supper as a symbolic act that expresses sincere faith in the one sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.
There is an element of faith in Catholic practice of course. The sacrament of "Confirmation" proceeds the first communion of a Catholic boy or girl - and it usually occurs by or about the age of 12. In the Reformed tradition, however, the genuine faith of the participant is the essential factor in participation in the Lord's Supper - apart from a "Confirmation".
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These differences in practice are because of differences in what the Lord's Supper is understood to mean. So then, what does the Bible say it means?
The meaning that the Bible gives to the Lord's Supper can be summarized in three things; and I think that understanding its biblical meaning helps us to understand who may participate in it. First - and I would say most important of all - it is an act of remembrance. "... Do this in remembrance of Me", Jesus said (Luke 22:19). Paul wrote, "For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death till He comes" (1 Cor. 11:26). As a memorial act that commemorates the sacrifice of Jesus for us on the cross, one very important element in defining who may participate in it is the ability of that person to intelligently connect the act of eating and drinking to a trust in Jesus' body being broken and blood being shed on the cross for our sins. It's an act of faith in which we say a personal "yes" to the sacrifice of Jesus. This would require a sense of sober reflection, personal repentance, and serious appreciation for what Jesus did. Even a very small child can say "yes" to the sacrifice of Jesus; but I think careful examination and loving instruction are required to determine that this has indeed happened.
Second, the Lord's Supper is a celebration of our communion together as brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul wrote, "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread" (1 Cor. 10:16-17). Paul was writing to warn Christians against the dangers of participating in idolatry through joining in with idolatrous feasts; but in stressing this point, he used the Lord's Supper as an illustration of how such a feast joins us with those who worship through it. In a back-door way, then, Paul is showing us that the Lord's Supper is meant to be viewed as an illustration of our own communion with one another as believers. This, again, would require that the participant understand that they are part of "one body" through faith in Christ (Eph. 4:4); and a child certainly could do this intelligently, but not without instruction.
A third thing that the Lord's Supper biblically illustrates is our anticipation of heaven, and of the time when we will finally be in the presence of our Savior. When Jesus ate His last meal with the disciples, He took the cup, gave thanks, and told them, "Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I say to you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes" (Luke 22:12). In Mark, He said, "Assuredly, I say to you, I will no longer drink the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God" (Mark. 14:25). Paul said that, by eating and drinking, we proclaim Jesus' death "till He comes" (1 Cor. 11:26). In this sense, the Lord's Supper is a prefiguring of that great meal - the Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:9) - that Jesus will at last enjoy with His redeemed ones in heaven. A small child could certainly understand that - but again, not without instruction.
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You'll notice that I keep repeating the word "instruction". The significance of these things must be taught. I believe that this would apply to all professing Christians of any age - and that would include small children, if they are able to understand.
I would say then that a small child may participate in the Lord's Supper - but that he or she should gently and lovingly be instructed by his or her parents or guardian to "wait" until they have clearly placed an intelligent faith in Jesus' sacrifice on the cross, and can understand the connection of the Lord's Supper to that event. The ability to do so, of course, may vary from child to child. I think that "faith" rather than "age" is the key issue. Your pastor or a church leader can help you determine if your child is ready for this.
When my children were small, my wife and I sought to teach them what the Lord's Supper means, and to help them approach that time with an intelligent faith in Jesus. When we thought they were finally ready to partake of it seriously and with genuine faith, we told them so; and then, we invited them to participate with thanks to the Savior. It was a very important day for them - and us - when they could finally do so. I believe that, because of this, it will always remain a genuinely significant celebration to them and will never be viewed by them as a pointless ritual.
Blessings in Christ,
(All Scripture quotes are taken from the New King James Version.)
Bethany Bible Church, 18245 NW Germantown Road, Portland, OR 97231 / 503.645.1436