Tuesday, October 14, 2014

What is the Appropriate Age to First Receive the Lord's Supper?

For this week's newspapers, I answered a question seeking an explanation for the diversity of ages at which different types of Christians begin receiving communion:

Q:  Why do different types of Christians begin allowing children to receive communion at so many different ages?  Is there a connection between Communion and other rituals such as Baptism or Confirmation? 

The most likely reason that there is so much diversity on this matter of congregational practice may be that there is no instruction given on the topic in the Bible.  Church history, likewise, has shown significantly mixed outcomes on this question. 

We do have writings from the second generation of Christians that show evidence that young children were being Baptized soon after birth, and an instruction that only the Baptized are to be communed.  However, it does not specify whether communion ought to begin immediately after Baptism or if there is a time later in life where communion reception is initiated. 

In today’s churches, we see that the Eastern Orthodox are communing even babies so young that the bread and wine must be mixed together and fed to them with a spoon.  Roman Catholic Christians begin communing children during their elementary years, then administer confirmation during adolescence.  Some Sacramental denominations outside of Catholicism also commune children prior to Confirmation, while others begin administering communion to children at the same time as confirmation, usually in their early teenage years. 

Among Christians who emphasize the Sacraments to a lesser degree or who see them as merely symbolic acts, there is a greater diversity of practice.  Some allow children to commune immediately upon being baptized (although not as babies, but at an age old enough to request Baptism).  Others allow children to commune when the parents and pastor deem them ready at some point after Baptism, while still others have disregarded the Baptismal connection altogether and allow individuals to make their own decision about communing, regardless of Baptismal status. 

The only Bible verse that approaches an answer to this question comes from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, when he says,

“Therefore 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. But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup.  For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself”

Paul instructs the Corinthians that those who receive the Lord’s Supper need the ability to examine themselves before receiving it.  This includes some degree of awareness regarding sin, repentance, and what is actually occurring at the Lord’s Supper, but beyond that it does not seem possible to discern a particular age from Paul’s instructions. 

At some times and places, it was assumed that children were not capable of reason until a particular age – usually around puberty.  This same assumption, which comes from human observation rather than from Biblical research, is the source of both the tendency for protestants to commune children around that time as well as the Baptist and Anabaptist assertion that an “age of accountability” exists prior to which children are not responsible for their sins and should not be baptized. 

However, based on purely Biblical considerations, we are left only with the imprecise requirement that communicants be capable of examining themselves.  The broadness of this command leaves us with a situation where, except for those communing babies and toddlers or communing the unbaptized, the rest of the Christian world seems to be within the boundaries of New Testament instructions on the matter. 

With the understanding that the Lord’s Supper is one of the diverse ways that our Lord delivers His grace, along with His Word and baptism, and with the understanding that it is the Lord’s promise that makes His Supper valid and effective, it would be unnecessary either to fear that a church is withholding salvation by delaying admission to communion until a certain age, or that one must necessarily complete certain additional milestones to be admitted.  

Instead, within the previously mentioned boundaries – that recipients of Communion be baptized and capable of self-examination - it is the responsibility of congregations and denominations to discern what is wise for their circumstances and develop a consistent practice that accurately reflects the doctrine that they teach. 

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