In 2010, synod voted to welcome children to the Lord’s table (a decision ratified by Synod 2011). Synod said:
“All baptized members are welcome to the Lord’s Supper for age- and ability-appropriate faith and obedience to biblical commands about participation, under the supervision of the elders. The elders have responsibility to nurture grateful and obedient participation by providing encouragement, instruction, and accountability in the congregation. Requiring a formal public profession of faith prior to participation in the Lord’s Supper is one pastoral approach to consider, but is not required by Scripture or the confessions.”
That decision has led to a great deal of reflection, conversation, and questioning throughout the Christian Reformed Church.
We’ve gathered a number of the most frequently asked questions and responded to them on these pages. We hope these answers address some of the questions you and others in your congregation may have. If you have additional questions, please let us know.
There is no one simple answer to this question, so it would be wise to ask others their opinion as well. Here’s our take on it.
During a twenty-five-year period, from about 1985 to 2010, a conviction gradually grew throughout the denomination that our practice of excluding children contained two significant contradictions:
There was an inherent contradiction between our Reformed covenant theology and our communion practices. Our covenant theology explicitly declared that through baptism a child fully belongs to the Lord. Our communion practice implicitly declared that a child is not really a full member of Christ’s body until he or she has made a public profession of faith.
There was also a contradiction between administering the sacrament as a means of grace and inviting only those who had examined themselves and ascertained that they were sufficiently worthy to partake. The Heidelberg Catechism clearly describes the grace-filled character of the sacrament. But the communion forms sternly reminded worshipers of Paul’s warning that “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:27). (See question 6 for more on this).
Appendix I provides a more detailed account of this twenty-five-year history.
This phrase attempts to put into words a reality that the church has practiced since its beginnings: each of us is called to walk with the Lord in a manner that is appropriate to our developmental stage in life and our ability. So just as we encourage very young children to begin obeying commands to pray to God and to not steal or lie, shouldn’t we also invite young children to engage in age- and ability-appropriate ways of participating at the Lord’s table?
This “age-appropriate and ability-appropriate” guideline is actually already practiced by the church. We gratefully observe that congregations regularly welcome baptized persons with cognitive disabilities to the table as members of the covenant who participate according to their ability. Further, the church regularly welcomes persons with dementia to the table, long after they have the capacity they once did to examine themselves and discern the body. We welcome them to obey in an ability-appropriate way.
It would be more accurate to say that this traditional emphasis is integrated into a more holistic approach. In other words, this new guiding principle about age- and ability-appropriate obedience challenges an earlier overemphasis on cognitive understanding. Our ability to reason is a great gift from God, and head knowledge does play a significant role in our faith life. But participation in the Lord’s Supper should never be limited by a person’s depth of understanding.
Second, we respectfully note that none of us can comprehend the depths of the mystery of the Lord’s Supper. As adult believers it is appropriate for us to realize that the difference between a young child and a mature adult pales in significance when we consider the depth of this mystery.
Third, an approach that advocates participation in an “ability-appropriate” way necessarily entails that we challenge children to grow in their understanding. Rather than setting aside the value of learning and pursuing cognitive understanding, it actually reinforces this value—calling on Christians to grow in knowledge and depth of participation throughout our lives. Indeed, this “age-appropriate” and “ability-appropriate” consideration also demands that the church issue new challenges to those lifelong members who either passively or actively resist growth in their walk with God.
That’s a very good question, and it points to a challenge at the heart of this issue. Grace is free, a gift, an unfathomable blessing flowing from the Father, who gave the Son that we may be grafted into the family, joined with Jesus in his death and resurrection to new life. Communion is a sign and a seal of this wondrous gift.
And yet, as the hymn says so well, “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all” (“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”). A gift is not a gift until it is received, and receiving the gift of grace transforms our entire lives, demanding “our all.”
Our change in communion practice seeks to make space for the power of grace in the sacrament, grace that is poured out freely for God’s children of all ages. Inviting “age- and ability- appropriate participation” should not be considered to be “lowering the bar” for young children, persons with dementia, or persons with cognitive disabilities. Rather, it “sets the bar” for every believer in ways that fit with their own age and capacity. It also challenges every child of God to continue maturing in every dimension of faith, including the cognitive, throughout life. We never outgrow the need to give God “my soul, my life, my all.”
The practice of requiring a public profession of faith before coming to the table is not based on biblical instruction. Rather, at the time of the Reformation it was considered by church leaders as the wisest way to reshape church practices related to the Lord’s table. This practice was part of a much larger set of changes made at that time to distinguish Protestant churches from the Roman Catholic Church. Those changes affected the Lord’s Supper practice, the use of art and symbolism, disciplines related to the confession, the role of church education, and much more.
Our context today is very different.
When a baptized member of the CRC makes a formal profession of faith, he or she makes three commitments:
To surrender his or her life to Jesus.
To accept the teachings of the Christian Reformed denomination.
To become an active participant in the life of the local church.
We believe it is important for members to make such a three-part commitment, but Scripture does not link that kind of commitment with admission to the table. The Christian Reformed practice of requiring more than the Scriptures do for admittance to the table can communicate that one must earn the right to come to the table—and that undermines the Lord’s gift of the table as a means of grace.
Many congregations have expressed this fear. It arises primarily from the concern that profession of faith will lose its significance if it is no longer the door to admittance at the Lord’s table. After all, if every baptized member is invited to the table, why would people feel the need to make profession of faith? That fear has some validity.
However, with wise implementation, including children at the table can actually strengthen the role of public profession of faith in the life of the congregation. It will refocus the profession on its full significance, a significance that might have been overshadowed by its link to the table: through our profession of faith we stand before God, our fellow believers, and the world to “declare with [our] mouth ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in [our hearts] that God raised him from the dead” (Rom. 10:9) for our salvation.
So even though the church now welcomes children to the table, we remain committed to devising “an appropriate means for securing a commitment to the creeds of the Christian Reformed Church and to the responsibilities of adult membership in the local congregation from confessing members who, having attained the age of 18, have not yet made such a commitment” (Acts of Synod 1995, Art. 69, p. 720).
This concern, addressed by Synod 1995, tacitly acknowledges that many congregations will seek evidence of faith in the child who comes to the table (i.e. the first of the three commitments identified in the previous Q&A). But these churches should also affirm all three commitments implicit in a public profession of faith: surrender to Jesus, commitment to the Reformed creeds and confessions, and commitment to participation in the life of the church.
It is our hope that by distinguishing the invitation to the table from the public profession of faith, congregations will be free to develop robust profession of faith programs for adolescent members who are participating at the table.
For generations the Christian Reformed Church has used its preparatory communion forms to teach that mature self-examination is a prerequisite for participation at the table, a teaching based on 1 Corinthians 11. Quotes from this chapter appear in our communion forms as follows: “Beloved in Jesus Christ, since we hope next Lord’s day to celebrate the blessed sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, we are called to prepare our hearts by rightly examining ourselves. For the apostle Paul has written: ‘Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup’ (1 Cor. 11:27-28).” According to this interpretation of the passage, children who are not mature enough to conduct such self-examination may not participate.
But a careful reading of the context of this passage from Corinthians and an understanding of the people Paul was addressing suggests that another interpretation is also worth pursuing:
The church in Corinth suffered from many divisions (11:18).
Communion practices reflected these divisions; relationships in the congregation were so dysfunctional that some members became drunk on communion wine before others had even arrived to worship (11:21).
Paul feels compelled to remind the Corinthians how the body of Christ is one, though it consists of many different members (ch. 12), and that agape love binds the community together (ch. 13). He explains that the many different gifts of the congregation need to be exercised appropriately so that worship is practiced “in a fitting and orderly way” (ch. 14).
When we note this context, the verse that follows the two verses used in the CRC preparatory form takes on profound meaning: “For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves” (v. 29). The phrase “body of Christ” points us in two directions: 1) the body of Christ who died for us, calling us to personal examination concerning our walk with the Lord (as the form does), 2) the body of Christ as the community of believers (as the metaphor is used in ch. 10:17 and ch. 12), calling us to corporate examination concerning our spiritual health as a community.
Commentators who believe that this text should take us in this second communal direction ask questions such as these:
Are we truly a Christian community that includes all members?
In what ways are we saying to certain members, “We don’t need you” (12:21)?
If we prevent children from participating in communion, are we guilty of not recognizing the body of Christ?
The spiritual discipline of self-examination is part of the daily devotional life of every believer who prays, along with David, “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Ps. 139:23-24). This personal discipline is nurtured in partnership with the weekly discipline of corporate confession of sin, which is part of many Reformed liturgies. Self-examination before coming to the table flows from these ongoing personal and corporate disciplines.
The invitation for age- and ability-appropriate faith and obedience in coming to the table recognizes that children also are capable of self-examination and discernment. Even very young children engage in the practices commended in 1 Corinthians 11, as they express with heartfelt sincerity “I’m sorry,” “I love Jesus,” “This is God’s family,” “This is God’s feast.” Like all professing adults who express these same sentiments, children will not understand them fully, and they may not hold to them consistently throughout their lives. But we see no reason why the church should not welcome and nurture their age- and ability-appropriate participation—along with committing to their ongoing nurture, education, and accountability.
Q&A 81 and 82 of the Heidelberg Catechism and Article 35 of the Belgic Confession of Faith are the portions of our confessions that most directly address this practice. Professor Lyle Bierma of Calvin Theological Seminary acknowledges that, at first glance, these portions appear to prohibit the entrance of children to the Lord’s table. But he goes on to say that if we study the confessions more carefully and consider their intent, we discover that their authors were concerned about something other than admitting children to the Lord’s table. They were concerned about fencing the table against the ungodly and unrepentant who were mature enough to believe but willfully refused to do so. In addition, the confessions suggest that both of the sacraments are a sign and seal of the promises of God (that is, receiving the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit) to the whole covenant community (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 74, 61).
Our traditional interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11 has likely steered our interpretation of the confessions.
No. The Christian life always intertwines the personal and the corporate, and our corporate practices cannot guarantee future personal responses. In his second epistle to Timothy, Paul laments the faith desertions of Phygelus and Hermogenes (1:15), Hymenaeus and Philetus (2:17), and Demas (4:10). It’s safe to assume that earlier he had participated in communion with each of these five deserters. Similarly, it is a sad reality that it is not unusual for Christian Reformed members who have made a public profession of faith to reject the Lord later in life.
It is not the responsibility of a church to guarantee that all who come to the table remain faithful to the Lord throughout their entire lives. Rather, it’s our responsibility to faithfully administer the means of grace and to encourage faithful responses to that grace in every way possible.
In two ways.
First, elders are called to discern what implications this new principle has for communion practices in their congregation. This discernment may take place in consultation with the consistory, the council, a committee that is established to focus on children at the table, and/or the entire congregation. This discernment may lead to an affirmation of existing practices (see next question), or a revision of these practices.
Second, the elders are called to oversee the proper implementation of the congregation’s communion practices and to provide the necessary guidance and resources for all who are responsible for that implementation (see questions 14 and 15).
No, it does not mean that. The new principle encompasses a wide variety of practices. It would be wise for each congregation to assess its current practices in light of this new principle. Together you can decide if your current practices represent the wisest manner of encouraging the faith formation of all members through the celebration of communion or if you need to make changes to your practices.
Scripture does not address this question, leaving us to identify extra-biblical criteria for making this decision.
These are some possibilities:
Give parents the freedom to make this decision (see question 14).
Determine a school grade level for inviting children that fits well with the expectations of your church community (e.g., grade 1, 2, or 3).
Incorporate a series of lessons about communion into a particular year of Sunday school. When children have completed that series, invite them to join you at the table.
You are not alone in seeking guidance. Faith Formation Ministries has created this toolkit because we have received numerous requests like yours. In addition to the toolkit, we at FFM
are more than happy to discuss questions and issues with you.
can connect you with church leaders whose congregations have just completed wrestling with the questions that you are working through now. Even if the conclusions they reached are not right for you, hearing about the process they engaged in will be helpful and encouraging.
Parental responsibility flows from the commitment made at baptism “to do all in your power to instruct this child in the Christian faith and to lead her by your example to be Christ’s disciple.”
More specific responsibilities may flow from the practice of the local congregation. The congregation that allows parents to decide when their children are ready to come to the table will need to give them guidance and resources for making such a decision and preparing their children properly.
All congregations are called to equip parents to guide their children toward meaningful participation in church life, including participation in the sacraments. This toolkit includes helpful resources for parents (See Family Resources section).
In several ways.
First, by intentionally developing communion practices that overflow with grace, joy, gratitude, and the celebration of community so that believers of all ages long to be nourished at the Lord’s table.
Second, by preaching a sermon series every three to four years that reflects on the role of communion in the life of the community of faith, so that a rich awareness of the meaning and power of the sacrament lives within the congregation.
Third, by making family devotional guides (such as those recommended in this toolkit under the Family Resources section) available for parents to use at home with their families and by looking for ways to encourage parents to share the stories of their home experiences with each other. For example, imagine if the sermon series referred to in the previous point included a story that began like this: “Last Sunday after the service, a young mom told me about their family dinner devotions the previous evening. She described how her seven-year-old daughter Kate . . . .”
Finally, by recognizing in every possible way the intergenerational character of the body of Christ, so that every age group knows the deep love of Christ as it is shared with every other age group. As this love grows stronger, the power of coming to the Lord’s table together will be made tangible and real, not only in the elements of the bread and the wine or juice but in the shared love of a community coming with open hands and hearts to be nourished by the Lord.
Call to mind this part of Paul’s powerful prayer for the Ephesians: “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:16-19).
This prayer points to the central mission of every Christian congregation: to be a community that is continually growing in grace and maturing in receiving and embodying the love of Christ. As one young woman put it, “I long to be part of a congregation that smells like Jesus.”
With that in mind, a prayer that can guide congregations is this: “Lord, what steps are we called to take as we grow in receiving, embodying, and sharing your great love for us? In what ways are we allowing our own fears and anxieties to prevent us from following you?”
Every congregation will answer this prayer differently. Some will be called to change their communion practices, and some will be called to wait. What matters is this: decisions should flow from trusting obedience and not from fear. The church that is afraid of conflict is the church that is paralyzed. We are the church that knows “this love that surpasses knowledge” and are being “filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:19).