From time to time I get asked this question and as we’ve been working through a believing and belonging series looking at things like membership, baptism and communion recently I thought it might be helpful to share a few thoughts.
I want to suggest that there are four questions you might want to ask.
- Why is the child taking communion?
- What is your approach to baptism and communion?
- What is your approach to children and baptism?
- Do you practice an “open” or a “closed” table.
Let me explain -you will see that they are interlinked.
- The big “why” question
In my experience, there are four reasons why -you may be able to think of more. First of all, and at its very simplest, the children are in the service, things are being passed round and they don’t want to miss out -or their parent, grandparent or Sunday School teacher is worried that the child will feel they are missing out. So, the child is given some bread to keep them quiet.
Now, first of all, a child picking up an eating a piece of communion bread is not going to do something magical to them. It is not going to bring some kind of curse on the child for eating what they shouldn’t and nor is the problem going to work the other way, our act of remembrance is not going to be wrecked by some one taking the bread and contaminating the communion meal. However, it would be good to stop and think about why we take communion and who it is for. It is an act of remembrance for believers. So, simply to give a child something to eat isn’t helping them to understand the significance and purpose of what we are doing. In fact, as a child grows in understanding, this can be a great opportunity to share with them what communion is about and why this is something precious to look forward to sharing in.
Secondly, a few years back, there was a big fuss about something called “The Federal Vision.” It was strong among some Presbyterians and Anglicans. It was an attempt to recover a high view of baptism for paedo-baptist evangelicals. They wanted to say that baptism for babies was more than just getting the baby wet and more than a naming ceremony. They argued that the child is within the covenant elect on the basis of their parents’ faith because the promise of salvation was to them and to their children (I believe there are a number of serious issues with this view but that’s for another day). Therefore, if objectively your child is in the covenant, shouldn’t they objectively receive the signs of the covenant? Just as they receive the sign of baptism, shouldn’t they also receive the sign of communion? As someone who practices believers’ baptism I would want to challenge this.
Thirdly, some people may think superstitiously that eating the bread and drinking the wine “does them good.” It will keep the child safe and make them a better person. With the second and third reason, we want to stop and talk with the parents because the practice is reflecting faulty beliefs that we want to see challenged pastorally by God’s word so they can grow in Christ.
Fourthly, the child may be saying that they want to take part in communion because they have believed in Jesus and trusted him for salvation. Now, the usual invitation at communion is to all who know and love the Lord. So, if a child knows and loves the Lord, then what is to prevent them coming and taking part? Well, one suggestion is that the child’s understanding of faith may be different to an adult’s. I’m not personally convinced by this. Yes a child will grown in their understanding of the Gospel but the Gospel is about grace and so intellectual understanding isn’t a factor here. What do you for example at the other end of the spectrum? What do you do about the adult who has severe learning difficulties but loves Jesus or the older person who is suffering from dementia? So, I don’t think that those will be factors.
What will be factors at this stage are first of all our responsibility to discern the body (1 Corinthians 11). Will decisions we take about how and when we take communion and our family take communion serve the unity and growth of the body or work against it? Are we acting in a loving way to the whole body? Secondly, your answers to questions 3-4 will matter. This is a good thing for parents wanting their children to participate to consider. It’s also helpful when considering whether the child can/should participate in communion. Are they able to discern the body. Again this is not an intellectual test. A child may not know every issue that may be of concern in the church but they may have a great sense of what it means to love and care for others -sometimes more keenly than adults.
- What is your approach to baptism and communion?
The second question is whether or not you think that someone should be baptised before they take communion. Is baptism an optional step for when you feel ready or is it the first step as an outward profession of faith.
I believe that baptism is meant to be closely linked to conversion. It is the outward statement of what has happened in our hearts. So those who know and who love the Lord are those who have publicly professed their faith. My view then is that participation in the weekly meal follows that one off public statement in baptism. Now, this is my advice but I also recognise that different people take different views even within our church family so I would not make a law out of this. This also relates to how we answer question 4 as a church.
- Children and baptism?
You can now see why I raised this question. Do you have a settled view on when children should get baptised? I am assuming here a believers’ baptism practice. Sometimes, “believers’ baptism” gets confused with “adult baptism” but in fact, the practice of Baptists throughout history has seen varied views on at what age a believer can get baptised.
My view is that there isn’t a legalistic age limit. The question is whether someone clearly shows faith in Christ. I take this for similar reasons to my answer to question 1 above. Our elders are agreed on this but we also recognise that there are some challenges as we think about
– How do you responsibly discern that there is a clear profession of faith and distinguish it from a desire to please parents and church leaders? We are responsible for who we baptise and that is a serious responsibility.
– How does church membership and discipline work?
– How is this viewed by the world around. I think this is a challenge when practicing baptism by immersion. I suspect that our culture will not bat an eyelid at a baby being sprinkled with water without giving their consent but a 6 year old of their own will and volition stepping into a tank of water will be seen as weird and even cultish.
So practically, we do have a concern to show love and care. For those reasons, we generally wait until secondary school age before baptising. Now, for me, that means I expect a young person who has been baptised to be participating in communion too.
- Open or closed table?
This may be a new concept for some. There are generally speaking two approaches to communion. If you have an open table, then you make a simple invitation to all who know and love the Lord to share in the meal. The person is responsible for deciding whether they should take part. There may be limits to this, for example, a person who is under church discipline may be told that they should not take part but essentially the responsibility is with the person’s conscience. Practically, if you pass the bread and wine around from person to person you are observing an open table whereas if the pastor or elders distribute to each person then you in more of a position to practice a closed table.
A closed table is practiced when you restrict who can participate. It may well be that you restrict to the baptised members of the specific assembly although you may also make provision for welcoming visiting believers who are in good standing at their home church. You may restrict who participates either by taking control over distributing the bread and the wine or by restricting who attends the meeting. In some churches this means that you must gain permission to even attend.
We practice an open table and this means that the individual takes responsibility for whether or not they take the bread and the wine.
Advice to churches
There will be differences of approach and opinion between local churches. It is helpful therefore for each local church to agree what their approach to these questions are and to give clear guidance to the church family. We should also encourage each family not to make individualistic decisions but to seek the unity and growth of the whole body together when deciding what to do.