Willoughby - Resource Document: Understanding Children at the Table
A Resource Paper for Understanding Children at the Table
1. A Brief Historical Overview of the Christian Reformed Church’s Position on Children at the Table.
In the past the practice in the CRC has been that baptized members were admitted to the Lord’s Supper upon a public profession of their faith. Normally, such a profession was not made before the latter years of high school. In 1988, synod gave encouragement to the churches that younger children should be admitted to the Lord’s Supper by way of profession of faith. Synod said, “Covenant children should be encouraged to make public profession of faith as soon as they exhibit faith and are able to discern the body and remember and proclaim the death of Jesus in celebrating the Lord’s Supper.” And then it added, “Since the Bible establishes no specific age requirement, the common practice of delaying profession of faith even though faith is present has no biblical warrant.” (Acts of Synod 1988, Art.74, page 559). In 1995, synod re-affirmed and strengthened this approach.
In 2006, in response to an overture, synod allowed “for the admission of all baptized members to the Lord’s Supper on the basis of their full membership in the covenant community” (Acts of Synod 2006, Art.71, page 730). However, because this decision involved a major policy change, it required a ratification by the following synod before it could become official.
Since Synod 2007 did not ratify this decision of 2006 it did not take effect. Instead, synod created the Faith Formation Committee to guide the denomination through this issue.
The Faith Formation Committee formulated this principle (which was adopted by Synod 2010 and ratified as a Church Order revision by Synod 2011):
“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.”
The following appears in the Acts of Synod 2011, Article 36:
That synod accept the revised version of “Children at the Table” (Agenda for Synod 2011, pp. 577-612) as fulfillment of the mandate of the Faith Formation Committee to formulate “a clear statement about the participation of baptized children at the Lord’s Supper and the practice of public profession of faith for use in the churches.”
The document is consistent with Scripture and the Reformed confessions.
Synod 2010 endorsed an earlier draft of the document as sufficient basis for approving a principle to guide further work on the topic.
The revised document includes the changes requested by Synod 2010.
This action will allow the document to be received by our congregations and by our ecumenical conversation partners as a document accepted by synod.
2. The new guiding principle adopted by synod calls for “age- and ability-appropriate faith and obedience.” What does this mean?
This phrase attempts to put into words a reality that the church has practiced since its beginning: 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. In other words, should we not view the imperatives regarding participation in the Lord’s Supper as we do with all the life-giving imperatives throughout scripture, as something that all God’s children should obey in an age- and ability-appropriate way? Just as we encourage very young children to begin obeying commands to pray to God and to not steal or lie, so too, we invite young children to engage in age- and ability-appropriate ways of participating at the Lord’s Table.
This “age- and ability-appropriate” argument is 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. It welcomes them to obey “in an ability-appropriate” way.
This position challenges the notion that children are not capable of self-examination and discernment. Even very young children engage in the practices commended in 1 Cor. 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, they will not understand them fully, and they may not hold to them consistently throughout their life. But as with professing adults, we see no reason why the church should not welcome and nurture their age- and ability-appropriate participation, as well as commit to their ongoing nurture, education, and accountability.
This principle challenges an over-emphasis on cognitive understanding. Our ability to reason is a great gift from God. But participation in the Lord’s Supper should never be limited to thinking about what we are doing, even as we generously invite each participant to greater learning over time.
Second, we would 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 with 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 it, calling on Christians to grow in knowledge and depth of participation throughout our lives. Indeed, this “age-appropriate” and “ability-appropriate” consideration also mitigates another pastoral challenge—the fact that some lifelong members either passively or actively resist growth in their walk with God and their participation in the Lord’s Supper over the course of their life.
In sum, “age- and ability- appropriate participation” should be not considered merely a way of “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.
3. Removing the requirement of making a formal profession of faith prior to participation at the Lord’s Table is a significant change. What are the grounds for this change?
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, and to become an active participant in the life of the local church. We believe it is good 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 have the effect of communicating that one must earn the right to come to the table, and this undermines the Lord’s gift of the table as a means of grace.
4. Won’t admitting baptized children to the Lord’s Supper undermine the importance of public Profession of Faith?
This fear has frequently been expressed. It arises primarily from the concern that if Profession of Faith receives its significance from the fact that it grants one the right to come to the Lord’s Table, then it potentially loses its significance if children may come to the table on the basis of their baptism or at any time prior to their public Profession of Faith. If not handled wisely, this problem could occur.
However, the Faith Formation Committee believes that with wise implementation, this change will strengthen the role of public Profession of Faith in the life of the congregation. The church has always taught that the Bible tells us that our profession of our faith has a far greater significance than to be a gateway to the table. Through our profession we declare to God, our fellow believers, and the world that we “confess with our mouth that ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe with our heart that God raised him from the dead” (Romans 10:9) for our salvation.
The church has also given consideration to the fact that even if young children come to the Table of the Lord, we should still “devise 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, page 720). This concern addressed by the 1995 synod tacitly acknowledges that many congregations will seek evidence of faith in the child who comes to the table, but they should also affirm the 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. Because the 1995 decision did not distinguish the simple profession of the child from the more mature three-part profession, children who came to the table did not need to make a public profession of faith during their teen years. 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.
5. Doesn’t removing this requirement for a public profession of faith contradict Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 11?
For generations the Christian Reformed church has used its preparatory communion forms to teach that mature self-examination is a prerequisite for participation, and this teaching was based on 1 Cor. 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 and application, children who are not mature enough to conduct such self-examination may not participate.
The force of generations of repetition has left the impression that this is the only proper interpretation of this passage. But a careful reading of the context suggests that another interpretation is also worth pursuing. The context tells us that:
The church in Corinth suffered from many divisions (11: 18).
Communion practices expressed these divisions, and were so dysfunctional that some members became drunk on communion wine before others had even arrived to worship (11: 21).
Paul is compelled to instruct the Corinthians concerning how the body of Christ is one though it consists of many different members (ch. 12), that agape/love binds the community together (ch. 13), and that in its worship, various gifts are 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 anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself” (vs. 29). The phrase “body of the Lord” points us in two directions: (1) the body of the Lord who died for us, calling us to personal examination concerning our walk with the Lord [as the form does], (2) the body of the Lord 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.
Some commentators observe that this text should take us in this second, communal direction, and ask questions such as, “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)?” “Who are the contemporary equivalents of the Grecian widows who are being overlooked (Acts 6: 1)?”
This second communal direction in which 1 Cor. 11 takes us challenges us also to ask the question, “If we prevent children from participating in communion, are we guilty of not recognizing the body of the Lord?” Though the answer to this question is not immediately clear, the passage does properly challenge us to explore the question.
6. What is the practice of other Reformed denominations on this matter?
Many Reformed denominations are engaged in conversations about this subject at this time. The following give us a picture of the landscape of the churches and their positions on this matter.
In the early church all baptized persons were welcomed to the Lord’s Table. This practice was gradually abandoned in the 12th and 13th centuries. The Protestant Reformers did not give consideration to reversing this abandonment of the practice of welcoming children to the Lord’s Table.
Many denominations currently practice confirmation which welcomes children of elementary school age to communion after a period of instruction, while others provide confirmation after their first communion.
The significant variation in other denominations is remarkable:
The Reformed Church of America currently allows young children to come to the Lord’s Table upon the evidence of faith and the permission of the parents and elders.
The Presbyterian Church USA says “Baptized members are entitled to the pastoral care and instruction of the church and to participate in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.”
In the Presbyterian Church of American (PCA) the customary practice is to admit to the Lord’s Table only those who “are of years and ability to examine themselves” and make a formal profession of faith; however they are allowed to hear a profession of faith of a younger child, and this would not entail full membership but would allow the child to participate in the Lord’s Supper.
The Presbyterian Church of Canada requires a profession of faith in Christ and obedience to him before admission to the Lord’s Table.
The Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) requires a profession of faith before admission to the Table of the Lord.
The Christian Reformed Church of Australia has claimed that “there are no Scriptural grounds to continue the Reformational practice of requiring a profession of faith by baptized members of the covenant community before seeking to take part in the Lords’ Supper” and parents, with the prior approval of the Session, are given discretion of allowing their children to participate.
7. Does admitting children to the Lord’s Supper square with the Reformed Confessions?
The Heidelberg Catechism, Q/A 81 and 82, and Belgic Confession of Faith, Art. 35 are the portions that most directly address this practice. Professor Lyle Bierma of Calvin Theological Seminary acknowledges that at first glance, these portions of the confessions appear to prohibit the entrance of children to the Lord’s Table. But he goes on to say that if we study them more carefully and consider their intent, we must admit that the confessions were concerned about something other than admitting children to the Lord’s Table. They were concerned not so much about children but 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).
Therefore it is possible to read the confessions in either way. We must admit, however, that our traditional interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11 seems to be written into the confessions, and has steered us in our interpretation of the confessions.
8. How specifically are elders called to supervise this new principle?
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 this, 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 have responsibilities for such implementation (see question 10).
9. Does this new principle mean that our congregation must change its practices?
No, it does not mean this. 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, and discern together if its current practices represent the wisest manner of encouraging the faith formation of all members through the celebration of communion or if changes to these practices are called for.
10. What responsibility do parents have?
Parental responsibility flows from the commitment made in the baptismal vows “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.” The more specific responsibility will depend on the type of communion practice exercised by the local congregation. The congregation that allows parents to decide when their children are ready to come to the table will 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 towards meaningful participation in church life, including participation in the sacraments.