Thinking Out Loud

June 8, 2018

Proudly Meeting Behind Closed Doors

As soon as the conversation started, I knew this was not someone whose Christianity I would identify with. She and I had never met or spoken before, but she seemed rather angry about something. When pressed, she made it clear she was part of the “Closed Brethren” not the other two versions of Brethren which I’m familiar with in my part of the world, represented by “Bible Chapels” (more open) and “Gospel Halls” (less open).

Technically, the Plymouth Brethren aka Exclusive Brethren are Evangelicals. Given what follows here, it stands as another example of how the Evangelical moniker is battered and bruised.

Wikipedia isn’t always your best go-to on theological matters, but it was handy:

The Exclusive Brethren are a subset of the Christian evangelical movement generally described as the Plymouth Brethren. They are distinguished from the Open Brethren from whom they separated in 1848.

The Exclusive Brethren are now divided into a number of groups, most of which differ on minor points of doctrine or practice. Perhaps the best-known of these, mainly through media attention, is the Raven-Taylor-Hales group, now known as the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church, which maintains the doctrine of uncompromising separation from the world based on their interpretation of 2 Corinthians 6 and 2 Timothy 2, believing that attendance at the Communion Service, the ‘Lord’s Supper’, governs and strictly limits their relationship with others, even other Brethren groups.

The origins of the exclusivity are often tied to the idea of “fencing off” the communion table, lest anyone partake unworthily. I attended a fairly conservative version (but not, strictly speaking, closed) of this in my hometown. I visited the “Gospel Service” at 11:00 AM, as opposed to the “Breaking of Bread” at 9:30 AM. I was told that I would have been permitted to participate on the basis of my own recognizance. I guess it’s nice to be a local Christian celebrity in a town of 20,000.

Recognition usually comes through a letter. “Do you have a letter?” is the oft-asked question in larger churches of this stripe, when a visitor shows up to break bread. If that’s your tribe, and you’re on holidays, you pack your letter with your swim trunks and camera so that you are guaranteed admission to such a church, which you’ve already determined exists.

When it comes to who gets to participate in The Lord’s Supper, aka Communion (aka Eucharist, but they would probably bristle at that Mainline Protestant term) I can understand this. Too often Evangelicals have gone too far the other way, allowing visitors to partake or small children. We’ve covered that before here and here. It also leads to discussion of communion as an extension of the Passover meal, and the ramifications of terms like “worship evangelism” and “household salvation” and other attempts at inclusivity.

But that’s not the subject of today’s thoughts.

Rather, it was the woman’s entire demeanor — the word once used was comportment — which was telecasting a version of faith that only the best of the best can ever hope to attain. Many times she took to reiterating elements of the conversation with me, as if I wasn’t quite getting what she was saying. It came across as more than just controlling, she was obviously better than a mere mortal such as myself.

That’s when it hit me: This just isn’t like Jesus.

Somewhere along the line, this particular denomination had wandered farther and farther down the path away from the heart of a loving heavenly father and the grace found in Jesus.

It wasn’t that her group is closed, it was that were proudly closed.

All of this seems a million miles away from the whosoever of scripture.

By all means, act in good conscious toward how you see scripture defining participation in The Lord’s Supper, but don’t let the restrictive nature of this practice be the thing which defines you.

And smile more.

 

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December 8, 2015

When Should Young Children Start Receiving Communion?

At what age should children first participate in The Lord’s Supper?  This article first appeared here in 2011 as part of a commitment to a publisher to review a certain book* and brought a number of comments. For that reason, I decided to run it again today**.


The two children sitting next to me — a boy about six and a girl of four or five — were fidgeting during the entire service. They spent most of the sermon time drawing pictures and there was a mild shoulder punch fight that took place during one of the worship songs where I thought the mom was going to split the kids up by sitting between them, but apparently opted not to. When the communion elements were passed across our row, without hesitation the kids helped themselves. The mom definitely saw the kids each take a piece of bread and the small cup of juice, and wasn’t the least concerned.


I grew up in a tradition where receiving The Lord’s Supper, partaking of Communion or Eucharist, or whatever name your faith family chooses to call it, was reserved for adults and those entering adulthood. I was eleven years old the first time. Anything younger, for me, would have been too young.

So when Christian Focus Publishing offered me a chance to review Children and the Lord’s Supper, I had hoped this book would address the question in clear and unmistakable terms. I believe this topic is important as it bears on so many issues: church, doctrine, worship, parenting, the spiritual nurture of children, the Christian education of our youth.

Make no mistake about it, this is an excellent book. If you want to cover this topic in great detail, I can think of no better resource, and I will be most grateful to have this paperback in my library for any time that this topic surfaces. However, for all that, there are reasons why I think this is the wrong book for the majority of readers here.

First, this is a very academic reference work that would cause most of my friends to glaze over after the first dozen or so pages. The book is a collection of eight essays an introduction by editors Guy Waters and Ligon Duncan, which defines paedocommunion as “the admittance of a covenant child to the Lord’s Supper on the basis of his (sic) descent from at least one professing Christian parent.” (p. 11) Persons looking for a simple answer to the question, ‘Daddy, may I take communion?” — which is also the title of an existing book — would find 214 pages of answer to what they perceive as a simple ‘yes or no’ question; not unlike the uncle at the Christmas gathering who recites the entire workings of the internal combustion engine, when all you asked was a simple question as to the frequency of oil changes. Mind you, there are no simple answers here.

Another awkwardness for the North American reader is the use of the UK construction paedocommunion rather than the American which would favor the use of pedocommunion (only occurring 195 times in a Google search as opposed to over 28,000 for the UK spelling; which suggests something right there) just as we tend not to speak of paedobaptism (46,000 on Google) preferring the spelling pedobaptism (a more balanced 17,000). This preoccupation with spelling is not a deal breaker, but is mentioned in passing here to highlight how North American readers would find this volume inaccessible at different levels. (When the absolute central focus of a book is a word that is spelled differently in both countries, perhaps it is time to consider a North American edition.)

More relevant is the Reformed perspective of the book. This book raises all the right issues, but does so in the context of a growing movement among some Reformed denominations to include younger children in the Lord’s Supper — some already do — to which there is apparently much consternation. We share the same scriptures of course, and everything presented in this volume is entirely relevant to all our churches, but one must first decide to get past the denominational perspective of the writers. In fairness, I should state that a couple of the writers do address the doctrinal understanding of the Lord’s Supper that is unique to the Roman Catholic mass, though this is done primarily for comparative purposes with the Presbyterian or Reformed view. And one writer views as inconsistent those Baptist groups which baptize children, but do not permit them access to the Communion table.

Which brings us to the meat of the book.

As it turns out, the issue of children of partaking of the communion elements is almost symptomatic to a deeper causal issue, namely our understanding of the relationship between the Lord’s Supper and Passover. This is the true focus on which many of the arguments — mentioned or alluded to — hinge. Certainly Jesus instituted this sacred meal in the context of a passover meal, but how strongly does the parallel run? Children are allowed to participate in the modern passover — though some doubts arise as to, for example, the first such meal in the years immediately following the Exodus — so why not permit children at our New Covenant equivalent? And some even argue that point, as to whether or not there is a tacit understanding that the youngest of children do not truly partake of the passover meal since they are too young to ask the questions (or you could say, be active in the liturgy) that is required of the youngest; even arguing the obvious point that the very youngest would be too young to chew food.

One writer suggests that in Passover, Jesus was instituting something that fulfills or completes the entire sacrificial system (p. 32). Several of the writers point out that the Westminster Catechism (part 177) requires that the children be old enough to examine themselves, alluding to the words of institution in I Cor. 11, something I would term, if I may, the presence of “spiritual sentience,” a term which, as long as we’re quoting Google, occurs elsewhere 283 times.

Indeed, the book’s strongest premise is that we best remember the Lord’s death and atonement through the Lord’s Supper combined with active faith. (pp. 72-73) The book also considers the various warnings that the apostle issues addressing the situation of those who would be receiving the communion elements in an unworthy manner.

…This is a book review, and book reviews are highly subjective. I said at the beginning that this is indeed an excellent book, it’s just not going to fulfill the expectations of the average browser in the average Christian book shop, especially here in North America. But subjectively, my personal reward for studying this book was a deeper understanding of passover, admittedly not the book’s stated purpose. I am much richer for reading Children and the Lord’s Supper, but I am clearly not the typical Christian book consumer.

And if I’ve caused your eyes to glaze over today, may I suggest that as parents of young children you err on the side of caution. The children in the example I cited at the outset certainly had no sense of reverence for what was taking place, and may I suggest that by that lack of reverence they profaned the moment or occasion as it took place in their part of the auditorium.


“Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” John 6:35 NIV


*The book is still available in both the US and UK. ISBN 9781845507299

**This article, combined with another one on the same topic, is also available at this link.

February 3, 2014

Kids and Communion: Sacrament or Snack-Time?

This is a topic that was covered here twice before, in February of 2011 and December, 2011. I’m presenting both complete today, but including the links because the December one attracted a number of comments. You can join that old comment thread or start a new one here that might get seen by more people.  The first article is more practical, the second more doctrinal. The first article also appeared on the day after a piece about children and (immersion) baptism, which is why it begins…

Continuing where we left off yesterday…

I like the story of the little boy who wanted to take part in the communion service that followed the Sunday morning offering. When told by his mother that he was too young to take communion, the eager participant whispered loud enough to be heard five rows back, “Why not? I just paid for it, didn’t I?”

~Stan Toler in Preacher’s Magazine

Last week was Communion Sunday at our home church. We attended the 9:00 AM service so that we could actually get to a second service at 10:30 at our other home church. The 9:00 AM service is attended by families with young children who wake up early, and I was horrified to glance and see a young boy of about six or seven helping himself as the bread and wine were passed. Maybe this story describes the kind of thing I’m referencing:

At my church, we had a special Easter night service, and we took communion. My brother was in there, and he’s only 6, so he doesn’t understand the meaning of it. When he saw the “crackers” and “grape juice” being passed around, he said “mommy! Its snack time! I want a snack too!” Obviously, he’s too young to take communion. But for those of us who do take it, do we see it as “snack time”? Communion is great. I love to hear Pastors words describing the night when Jesus and his 12 apostles took upon the 1st Holy Communion. I think since we do take communion regularly in church, we overlook the importance there is in it.

~Summer, a 15-year old in Illinois

But not everyone agrees with this approach:

I have allowed my children to take communion ever since they have told me that they love Jesus. I think 3 was the age they were first able to verbalize that.

We explain it to them each time as the bread and wine come around, and while they dont get it all, they know they are considered ok to partake.

This would not have happened in the world I grew up in.

~Andrew Hamilton at Backyard Missionary (no longer available)

The latter view is the one currently gaining popularity among Evangelical parents. And there are often compelling reasons for it. A children’s ministry specialist in New Zealand only ever posted four things on his or her blog, but one of them was this piece which argued for including all children because:

  • The historical reason: Children would be included in Passover celebration;
  • The Passover parallel: It is a means of teaching children about Christ’s deliverance for us;
  • Salvation qualifies them: If they have prayed to receive Christ, which is not exclusive to adults, they should participate;
  • The alternative is complicated: The age at which a child would be considered “ready” would actually vary for each child, and setting a specific age adds more complication;
  • Communion is an act of worship, something children should be equally participating in.

Having read that, it might be easy to conclude that this is the side to which I personally lean.

That would be a mistake.

Despite the arguments above, I really think that Summer’s comment adequately describes the situation I saw firsthand last Sunday. As with yesterday’s piece here — Baptism: How Young is Too Young? — I think we are rushing our children to have ‘done’ certain things that perhaps we think will ‘seal’ them with God.

I thought it interesting that one of the pieces I studied in preparation for yesterday’s post suggested that the parents of children who would be strongly opposed doctrinally to infant baptism have no issues with their non-infant children being baptized very young. Another article described a boy so young they had to ‘float’ him over to the pastor, since he couldn’t touch the bottom.

I’ve often told the story of the young woman who told me that when she was confirmed in her church at age 14 — confirmation being the last ‘rite’ of spiritual passage for those churches that don’t practice believer’s baptism by immersion — she stopped attending because she ‘done’ everything there was to ‘do.’ She described it perfectly: “The day I officially joined the church was the day I left the church.”

Are we in too much of a hurry here to see our children complete these things so we can check them off a list? Are parents who would be horrified to see their daughters wearing skimpy outfits because that constitutes “growing up too fast” actually wanting their sons and daughters to “grow up spiritually too fast?”

I was eleven when my parents deemed me ready to take communion. While I question my decision to be baptized at 13, I think that this was a good age to enter into the Eucharist. I know that Catholic children receive First Communion at age seven, therefore I am fully prepared to stick to this view even if I end up part of a clear minority.

(more…)

December 3, 2011

Should Young Children Receive Communion?

At what age should children first participate in The Lord’s Supper?


The two children sitting next to me — a boy about six and a girl of four or five — were fidgeting during the entire service.  They spent most of the sermon time drawing pictures and there was a mild shoulder punch fight that took place during one of the worship songs where I thought the mom was going to split the kids up by sitting between them, but apparently opted not to.  When the communion elements were passed across our row, without hesitation the kids helped themselves.  The mom definitely saw the kids each take a piece of bread and the small cup of juice, and wasn’t the least concerned.


I grew up in a tradition where receiving The Lord’s Supper, partaking of Communion or Eucharist, or whatever name your faith family chooses to call it, was reserved for adults and those entering adulthood.  I was eleven years old the first time.  Anything younger, for me, would have been too young.

So when Christian Focus Publishing offered me a chance to review Children and the Lord’s Supper, I had hoped this book would address the question in clear and unmistakable terms.  I believe this topic is important as it bears on so many issues:  church, doctrine, worship, parenting, the spiritual nurture of children, the Christian education of our youth.

Make no mistake about it, this is an excellent book.  If you want to cover this topic in great detail, I can think of no better resource, and I will be most grateful to have this paperback in my library for any time that this topic surfaces.  However, for all that, there are reasons why I think this is the wrong book for the majority of readers here.

First, this is a very academic reference work that would cause most of my friends to glaze over after the first dozen or so pages.  The book is a collection of eight essays an introduction by editors Guy Waters and Ligon Duncan, which defines paedocommunion as “the admittance of a covenant child to the Lord’s Supper on the basis of his (sic) descent from at least one professing Christian parent.” (p. 11)  Persons looking for a simple answer to the question, ‘Daddy, may I take communion?” — which is also the title of an existing book — would find 214 pages of answer to what they perceive as a simple ‘yes or no’ question; not unlike the uncle at the Christmas gathering who recites the entire workings of the internal combustion engine, when all you asked was a simple question as to the frequency of oil changes.  Mind you, there are no simple answers here.

Another awkwardness for the North American reader is the use of the UK construction paedocommunion rather than the American which would favor the use of pedocommunion (only occurring 195 times in a Google search as opposed to over 28,000 for the UK spelling; which suggests something right there) just as we tend not to speak of paedobaptism (46,000 on Google) preferring the spelling pedobaptism (a more balanced 17,000).  This preoccupation with spelling is not a deal breaker, but is mentioned in passing here to highlight how North American readers would find this volume inaccessible at different levels. (When the absolute central focus of a book is a word that is spelled differently in both countries, perhaps it is time to consider a North American edition.)

More relevant is the Reformed perspective of the book.  This book raises all the right issues, but does so in the context of a growing movement among some Reformed denominations to include younger children in the Lord’s Supper — some already do — to which there is apparently much consternation. We share the same scriptures of course, and everything presented in this volume is entirely relevant to all our churches, but one must first decide to get past the denominational perspective of the writers.  In fairness, I should state that a couple of the writers do address the doctrinal understanding of the Lord’s Supper that is unique to the Roman Catholic mass, though this is done primarily for comparative purposes with the Presbyterian or Reformed view.  And one writer views as inconsistent those Baptist groups which baptize children, but do not permit them access to the Communion table.

Which brings us to the meat of the book. 

As it turns out, the issue of children of partaking of the communion elements is almost symptomatic to a deeper causal issue, namely our understanding of the relationship between the Lord’s Supper and Passover.  This is the true focus on which many of the arguments — mentioned or alluded to — hinge.  Certainly Jesus instituted this sacred meal in the context of a passover meal, but how strongly does the parallel run?  Children are allowed to participate in the modern passover — though some doubts arise as to, for example, the first such meal in the years immediately following the Exodus — so why not permit children at our New Covenant equivalent?  And some even argue that point, as to whether or not there is a tacit understanding that the youngest of children do not truly partake of the passover meal since they are too young to ask the questions (or you could say, be active in the liturgy) that is required of the youngest; even arguing the obvious point that the very youngest would be too young to chew food.

One writer suggests that in Passover, Jesus was instituting something that fulfills or completes the entire sacrificial system (p. 32).  Several of the writers point out that the Westminster Catechism (part 177) requires that the children be old enough to examine themselves, alluding to the words of institution in I Cor. 11, something I would term, if I may, the presence of “spiritual sentience,” a term which, as long as we’re quoting Google, occurs elsewhere 283 times.

Indeed, the book’s strongest premise is that we best remember the Lord’s death and atonement through the Lord’s Supper combined with active faith. (pp. 72-73)  The book also considers the various warnings that the apostle issues addressing the situation of those who would be receiving the communion elements in an unworthy manner.

…This is a book review, and book reviews are highly subjective.  I said at the beginning that this is indeed an excellent book, it’s just not going to fulfill the expectations of the average browser in the average Christian book shop, especially here in North America.  But subjectively, my personal reward for studying this book was a deeper understanding of passover, admittedly not the book’s stated purpose. I am much richer for reading Children and the Lord’s Supper, but I am clearly not the typical Christian book consumer.

And if I’ve caused your eyes to glaze over today, may I suggest that as parents of young children you err on the side of caution.  The children in the example I cited at the outset certainly had no sense of reverence for what was taking place, and may I suggest that by that lack of reverence they profaned the moment or occasion as it took place in their part of the auditorium. 


“Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” John 6:35 NIV

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