This is a very serious question that came to us this week in our newsletter and requires a very serious response. Normally I would include these in the body of the email, but in an attempt to keep this email readable, and in an attempt to help the church better engage better with the content, I have decided to post the answer to this here and as a special episode on our podcast.
No matter if you are a parent of children living in the home or looking to explore the Lord's Supper for yourself, please engage with this material. I cannot stress this enough. With that, let us look at some foundational points on what Communion is, then I will offer some helpful questions that parents can be asking, along with some practical applications for parents, and then at the end I will conclude by presenting The Shepherd's Church's position.
WHAT IS COMMUNION?
Communion is one of the two sacraments that the Lord Jesus installed for His Church. It is a covenant meal for covenant members who proclaim and participate in new covenant realities until Jesus returns. Paul, in perhaps the most comprehensive passage on this topic, says in 1 Corinthians 11:23-34
For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.”In the same way He took the cup also after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes. 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 if he does not judge the body rightly. For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep. But if we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned along with the world. So then, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, so that you will not come together for judgment. The remaining matters I will arrange when I come.
From this passage alone we learn several critical things.
COMMUNION IS COMMUNAL
Paul tells us that when Jesus gathered His disciples together for that final Passover on the night he was betrayed, it was in that context of a communal gathering, that they took the first covenant meal. Paul also tells us, about 20 years later, Christians were still taking that meal communally in their church gatherings. And while the Lord’s Supper originated from within the Passover tradition (which is a wonderful and beautiful topic by itself), it did eventually become its own communal meal that the earliest Christians took together in their gatherings.
COMMUNION IS FREQUENT AND PERPETUAL
Since these believers gathered weekly as a church, and since they took the Supper whenever they gathered, I believe it is right to assume they took Communion on a weekly basis. And while I realize many churches do not take the meal on a weekly basis, I do believe this is the most Biblical and faithful method based on this passage. It is also clear that the taking of Communion is not a seasonal endeavor, but one we are to continue from now until the Lord Jesus returns.
COMMUNION IS MORE THAN FOOD
Paul tells us that Christ broke the bread, poured the cup, blessed the elements, and gave them to His followers as a representation of His body and blood. Understanding what this means and its practical implications have caused a tremendous amount of confusion, so it is here I will summarize the positions and tell you how The Shepherd’s Church understands this.
THE CATHOLIC VIEW - The Catholic Church believes a heretical view that Communion is necessary for salvation. Because of that, they wrongly and shockingly believe that when Jesus blesses the bread and wine those elements become His real body and His real blood that is being re-sacrificed for believer’s sins. This view is called Transubstantiation (the bread and wine become His physical body and blood). Instead of His one-time death on the cross being enough to cover our sins, the Catholic’s believe Jesus must be sacrificed again and again and that believers must eat His real flesh and drink His real blood in order to be forgiven of their sins. This is not only wrong but equates to a sort of divine cannibalism
THE LUTHERAN VIEW - Martin Luther rejected the Catholic view that this was Jesus’ real flesh and blood and He also rejected their view that Communion was salvific (meaning we must do it to be saved). But, Luther did affirm (from this passage and others) that the Lord is sharing His real presence, at the table, with His disciples through this meal. Luther determined that while the bread and wine did not physically change, Christ was somehow physically present at the meal with His people. This caused Luther to hold onto a high view of Communion since it was not only a lame ceremony, but we are entertaining Christ as our guest at the table.
THE REFORMED VIEW - John Calvin agreed with Luther that the Catholic Church possessed a heretical view and that the elements do not physically change. But he disagreed with Luther that Christ was present physically at the table. Calvin cited many passages from Scripture where Christ is physically present in heaven, He is seated at the right hand of God, and He rules on His throne. Unlike God the Father who is beyond space and time, and unlike the Spirit who inhabits every single believer all at the same moment, Calvin rightly argued that Jesus has chosen to limit Himself to a physical body and that reality extends even to the way He lives and rules in heaven (e.g. Phil. 2:5-11). For this reason, Christ cannot be physically present in 2 locations (both in heaven and at our table) so he rejected Luther’s Consubstantiational position. But Calvin did hold a high view of the table. He did, rightly, recognize that something more than a symbol was going on here. Christ was present in some way. And it was this understanding that led Calvin to say that while the physical presence of Jesus was not at the table, the real and spiritual presence of Jesus was at the table, which means when we take communion it is one of the most sacred and holy things we could ever do as a believer. It is not just a ceremony. It is not just a symbol. Christ’s real and spiritual presence (i.e. The Holy Spirit) is extra specially present when Jesus’ Church gathers together and takes the Table.
THE ZWINGLIAN VIEW - Ulrich Zwingli, who was also a protestant reformer, rejected both Calvin and Luther and stated that there is no special presence of Christ at the table. It is just a memorial. It is just a symbol. There is nothing inherently more significant about Communion than the other aspects of our corporate gathering. Admittedly, this is the majority position today in Evangelicalism.
- THE SHEPHERD’S CHURCH - We reject the Catholic view completely and outrightly as heresy and not a Christian view. We show grace to our brothers and sisters in the Lord who take the Lutheran and Zwinglian views. But, given the Biblical data, we firmly and resoundingly acknowledge that communion is more than a ceremony. While Jesus is not physically present at our table when we take the elements, His real and tangible spiritual presence is there nourishing us, feeding us, and communing with us. And for that reason, we want to have an extremely reverent and sacred view of the spiritual realities that are happening at the Supper. Christ established this as something special and we want to treat it as such. In fact, we believe it should be the most sacred, sober, and serious moment of our service.
COMMUNION IS PARTICIPATION AND PROCLAMATION
Since we covered this above I will just say this, Communion is participating and communing with the real presence of Christ and proclaiming His death until He returns. We affirm that wholeheartedly.
COMMUNION IS FOR BELIEVERS
The elements of the Lord's Supper represent realities that only the believer can or will affirm. When Jesus says that this is His body broken for us; this is His blood shed for us; the "us" in that equation applies to the true Church of Christ. It is an exclusive meal for believers and cannot nor must not be taken by unbelievers.
COMMUNION IS FOR THE REPENTANT
Along those same lines, communion is not an absolute right for the believer without exception. It is a privilege for those who are pursuing a life of holy devotion to the Savior and who are in good standing within the community. Paul corrects these Corinthians for both! He admonishes them for the unrepentant sin they have in their lives and He rebukes them for their wicked treatment of their brothers and sisters which has caused disunity within the community.
So, beyond being a believer who is reverent in how they approach the table, we also begin to see that communion is only available to those who are pursuing repentance to Christ and reconciliation with man. If we are living an unrepentant lifestyle we must not participate. If we have an issue with someone in the community that has not been dealt with we must not take communion. These are real and Biblical qualifications that I want all of us to know, understand, and take seriously.
COMMUNION IS A CURSE
Paul tells us that the reason some of their church members were sick and asleep (a euphemism for death) was because they flippantly approached the table of the Lord. He is saying that there are real-world individual and corporate consequences for not getting this right, which ought to immediately grab our attention. Again, this happens when an unbeliever comes to the table and is not lovingly protected, when a believer comes to the table living in unrepentant sin to God, or when a believer approaches the table with a broken relationship in the community. We must work hard to ensure we are right before God and others before we come forward.
COMMUNION IS A BLESSING
I do not want it to be lost here that Communion is a blessing from God to us! It is participation in and with Christ! It is for our joy and satisfaction that we take it. If we are not taking the table, for whatever reason, I believe we should feel in a very real sense that we are missing out on a real grace that God has provided for our life! We are not just missing out on an after sermon snack, we are missing out on a moment to experience Christ in a real and tangible way. Therefore, I want us to yearn for that moment, but I also want us to treat it as holy. Both are true!
LEADERS WILL BE JUDGED MORE SEVERELY
Now, just like Paul wrote these challenging words to the leaders of the Corinthian Church, I also realize that Derrick and I will have to stand before the Lord on how we lead this church on this issue. Since adults and children of believing parents participate in communion at our gatherings, we must have some theology behind this decision or we are being flippant with the text and worthy of the Lord's rebuke. This understanding causes both of us to approach this issue with fear and trembling.
LEADERS HAVE A RESPONSIBILITY TO LEARN
Because of the severity of this issue, Derrick and I take it as our sacred responsibility to continue studying this topic. For ten years I have personally read and studied all of the passages on communion in the Bible, I have tried my best to learn the covenantal framework undergirding the Supper, I have read various books from different theological positions, I have read articles from pastors for pastors on how to rightly administer the elements, watched lectures, and with all of that, I will be the first one to admit I still need more study. This issue is one of the most important issues in the church and it is worth our careful consideration. So, with that, you have both Derrick and my pledge that until we meet the Lord we will be wrestling over this issue to make sure we are loving you, protecting you, and shepherding you well in regard to this topic.
LEADERS HAVE A RESPONSIBILITY TO TEACH
Along with continuing to learn, leaders have a responsibility to teach. Paul did not expect the leaders to read his rebuke and stay silent. He expected them to gather the church, read these words, and for repentance to come where it was needed.
This is why we take a moment during every service to teach aspects of communion to the church so that we will have a growing understanding of what the Supper means, why we take it, who may take it, what heart-level position we must be in while taking it, and things like this. We want to be like the men who led the Corinthian Church and not assume you are tracking with Paul, but explain what all of this means. But even while saying that, I must admit we have room to grow and cause to repent.
To the best of my knowledge, while we have taught aspects of this at every gathering, we have not given a full treatment like we are doing here and we have not yet taught our parents how to approach this on behalf of their children. For that, we apologize and repent to each of our parents and are seeking to correct this now and hereafter.
With those foundations in place, I now want to give you some questions that will guide all of us as adults and especially as parents when determining if our children are ready for participating in communion. You will notice they are broken down into the three categories for participation: 1) Believer, 2) In good standing with Christ, and 3) In good standing in the community of faith.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER
1. Is my child a Christian as outlined in Scripture?
2. Does he or she profess Jesus Christ as Lord?
3. Does he or she exhibit and embody the fruit of the Spirit?
4. Does my child experience sorrow over sin and an eagerness for repentance (as evidence of the indwelling work of the Holy Spirit)?
5. If not, am I willing to wait and withhold until such time as I am convinced of my child’s standing before the Lord?
6. Am I also willing to have further conversations with my child in order to disciple them towards this?
UNION WITH CHRIST
7. Is there anything in my child life’s today that would prevent him or her from participating?
8. Does my child understand the reality that is taking place at this moment?
9. If not, what conversations can and should take place before participation in Communion is warranted?
UNION WITH OTHERS
10. Has my child been baptized into Jesus’ body?
(Admittedly we are still wrestling with this question. And while we do not currently see this as prohibitive (meaning we are not yet convinced that if you have not been baptized you cannot take communion), it is a question worth exploring and we commit to continue thinking and praying over it. Here is how we are processing this and how you, as the pastor / shepherd of your home, can also process through it as well. If Paul says that Communion is offered to believing, repentant, and covenant members of the Corinthian community, and if covenant members were baptized believers, then should baptism logically precede participation? At this point, my conscience is clear that children who have not yet been baptized may participate with their parents so long as their parents are resolved that their children are believers who meet the Biblical qualifications for Communion. But, I would also say, that if a child is in this position that child is likely ready for baptism so the two work hand in hand for me.)
11. Does my child have a Biblical understanding of what communion is and what is happening at the table?
12. If not, in what ways can my child grow in this understanding and what conversations should we have as a family?
13. Given everything I have read above, am I settled in my conscience before the Lord that my child should participate in communion?
1. BIBLICAL ACCOUNTABILITY
Like a pastor who presides over a congregation, parents are held accountable to the Lord for how we shepherd our kids, the little flock we have at home. Since there is no Biblical age specified for participation in communion, our role as a parent is to have a confident answer for the questions above. Instead of The Shepherd’s Church making a one-size-fits-all decision that affects all children at the church we have decided to allow fathers and mothers to prayerfully make this decision for their children because they know their child best, and are in a better position to make this determination week in and week out than we are.
2. HEALTHY COMMUNICATION
I would encourage every parent thinking through these things to not make this decision moments before we take the Supper, but to make it in advance and to incorporate it into the conversation of the family. As parents, we must prayerfully consider whether our children are in the faith and walking faithfully before the Lord. This is essential! And we must pray for our kids' salvation and also pray for our kids' role and ability to faithfully participate in Jesus' body. That is good and right! But, I do think, whatever decision we come to in regard to participation in communion, we must speak to our children about it and teach them the importance of corporate communion.
Now let me be clear, our children are in no way deficient if we decide that they are not yet ready to participate. The messaging to our kids cannot and must not be, "you are not good enough”, "you don't meet the standard”, "you do not measure up," or anything like that. Because if we say it in this way, we will give them a terribly wrong and destructively religious idea that participation in the Supper is based on what they can do for Jesus. It is not! Both salvation and participation are gifts from God. We are not saved by what we do for Him and we do not participate in the table to appease Him. All of it is a gift! Therefore, our communication must be God-centered and rooted in our adoption into the family of God.
3. THEOLOGY OF ADOPTION
As a parent who is seeking to communicate these things to my children, I have found that unpacking a theology of adoption has been incredibly helpful. God is Father. Christians are His adopted kids. And if we want the benefits of being in God's family, then we must be a part of His family. And what a wonderful conversation we get to have here! When teaching our kids about communion, we get to present the Gospel to our kids! We get to share how God is our loving Father and how in Christ He rescued us as orphans. We get to share how someone is rescued and invited into the family of God through Christ, how someone is made into a child of God through His death, burial, and resurrection, and what amazing love the Father has for His newly adopted children to make us His sons and daughters. We get to teach them about the family rules that children in God's house follow because they love Him and want to obey Him. We get to share what fun traditions that this new family has that sets us apart as unique and special (participation in Church, Baptism, Communion, reading the Word, etc.). And, by simply opening up the lines of communication on communion, and by rooting it in the theology of adoption, we get to tell the story of why all of this is so important!
Instead of the conversation being rooted in what they don't have (religion) it must be rooted in what they can have in Christ (relationship). Instead of us saying you cannot take communion, we get to joyfully declare how this is something they get to have when they are members of God’s house. I hope that distinction makes sense.
5. FEROCIOUS COURAGE
If you are a parent and you do not know (or maybe you are not yet confident) on whether your child is truly in the faith, repentant, and in good standing in the community, you must have the courage to obey the Lord on behalf of your unbelieving or not yet believing child. It is more loving to sit down, have a conversation on what communion is, why we take it, who can take it, and how serious it is to God, than to allow our children to participate in something that they are not yet ready for and do not understand.
6. COMMITTED EXPLORATION
I would also say that children participating in communion is a deep and important issue where so much could be said, needs to be said, and probably has not yet been said. With that said, both Derrick and I will be available to any parent who would like to further discuss these things. We will also begin working through various resources on communion so that we can provide a list of approved studies on this topic if you are interested in further study.
7. FEARLESS LEADERSHIP
I would also say we must give ourselves and our kids a lot of grace in this. We do not make decisions for our kids out of anxiety or fear, but in the courage and wisdom the Lord provides. There may be seasons where we are reasonably convinced that our child is a believer and then there may be other seasons where we just do not know. Our job is not to know this with certainty. That is God's job. Our job is to lead them to the Lord and to point them toward Christ in all things, and to help them prepare to take the table rightly. As a parent, until our child is making decisions on their own, we have the right and responsibility before the Lord to not only make decisions for them but to lead them toward godly decision making.
8. JOY-FILLED FREEDOM
If you are a parent and you are convinced that your child does meet the Biblical qualifications, then I want you to know that you have the joy-filled freedom to not only walk your child up to the table, and not only to lead them in taking it with you, but also to celebrate alongside them! At the table, more than the simple parent-child dynamic that is true of your relationship, when your believing children sit with you at Christ's table, they are also you're equal in Christ, co-heirs of His promises, and not just your sons and daughters but also your brothers and sisters in the Lord. How cool is that?
9. AN EXAMPLE ON HOW TO PREPARE YOUR KIDS
As I was thinking about this, I wanted to give everyone a practical example that I hope will be helpful. As you incorporate these things into your conversations at home it may be helpful for the father to simply have this conversation with his family in the car before entering the building. You could say something like this:
“Hey guys, we are about to enter the Lord’s house where we will gather with God’s people to worship Him and experience His presence. While we are here, we will sing our praises to God, we will listen to the Word of God preached, and we will get to experience Jesus’ presence at communion. But, before we go in, I want us to make sure our hearts are in the right place. Is there anything we need to talk about before we go in? Is there any sin that is still weighing on our hearts? Is there anything we need to confess to God or to confess to others before we enter the Church?”
By doing this you allow your children to prepare for church, to see the high calling we have as participants, and to see that the Lord is worthy of our careful examination. It also allows our children to become comfortable sharing their struggles, it allows them to see us as vulnerable, and it allows them to see that Christ is our one and only true mediator.
THE SHEPHERD’S CHURCH POSITION
- We believe that only Christians may participate in communion as outlined in Scripture
- We believe that only repentant Christians, in good standing before God and man, not living in habitual unconfessed sin, may participate in communion as outlined in Scripture
- We believe that children are not yet capable of making these decisions entirely on their own and must come under the leadership of their parents.
- We believe that parents play an active role in discipling their children as believers (or as future believers) to love God above all else and to love their neighbor as themselves.
- We believe the Church is called to assist parents, prepare them for taking communion as individuals, and preparing them as leaders in their homes.
- We believe that The Shepherd’s Church must be willing and available to provide any and all assistance so that parents feel well equipped to love, lead, and shepherd their families.
- We also believe, as pastors called to shepherd, we must be men who will continue to study God Word so that we are qualified to lead our church in a way that honors our Lord and King and ministers faithfully to you.
Now, I know that is a lot of information. So, if you have any questions about anything I have shared, please do not hesitate to reach out so that we can talk more about it.
Grace to you!