Q&A: When should children participate in the Lord's Supper?

When should children participate in the Lord's Supper?

Question

In the PCA, how old does a child need to be to participate in the Lord's Table?

Answer

The Lord’s Table is a distinct and matchless meal. It is special and unique. It’s a precious spiritual meal with physical elements and is meant to be eaten with great humility, reverence, respect, and proper self-examination.

A look at The Westminster Larger Catechism, specifically the last phrase of the answer to Question 177, will be helpful. Question 177 asks, "Wherein do the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's supper differ?"

The sacraments of baptism and the Lord's supper differ, in that baptism is to be administered but once, with water, to be a sign and seal of our regeneration and in-grafting into Christ, and that even to infants; whereas the Lord's supper is to be administered often, in the elements of bread and wine, to represent and exhibit Christ as spiritual nourishment to the soul, and to confirm our continuance and growth in him, and that only to such as are of years and ability to examine themselves.

Notice that the above answer follows the Scripture's teaching on the Lord's Supper. With respect to the last phrase highlighted above, 1 Corinthians 11:28-29 says: "Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself." The overall context of this biblical text is important to understand. Some church members in Corinth mixed idolatry with the meal (1 Cor. 10:1-22). There were divisions among some of the people (1 Cor. 11:18; cf. 1 Cor. 1:10-4:21). Others over-satisfied themselves with the elements and other foods (gluttony) and wines (drunkenness), while others went without (1 Cor. 11:20-22, 33-34). A re-read of every chapter of 1 Corinthians (and 2 Corinthians) will reveal that the church at Corinth had some serious issues. [1]

Even in the Old Testament, God was serious about his commands (Exod. 4:24-26; 12:13-14; 15:26; Num. 20:12, 24). And in 1 Corinthians 11:28-29, Paul warns us to properly discern the Lord’s Table. The word "discern" (Greek, dikrino) means "to separate" or "distinguish." By listening to Scripture and seeking the Spirit’s guidance, we are to distinguish what is proper from what is not. We are told not to take this meal for granted. It’s not just another visit to Chick-fil-A. We are to take great care when participating, as those who don’t properly discern the Lord’s Supper in faith and sincere repentance in God’s providence of all things risk their very lives (cf. 1 Cor. 11:30). True discernment takes some maturity; individuals must be old enough to examine themselves, and underage children aren’t capable of this. The Table is for sinners, but it is only for those who trust Christ alone for their salvation. For this reason, the Table should be guarded. Only repentant sinners are to be welcomed at the Lord’s Table.

The PCA Book of Church Order, Chapter 57 follows a similar line of reasoning as well.

The Admission of Persons to Sealing Ordinances

57-1. Believers’ children within the Visible Church, and especially those dedicated to God in Baptism, are non-communing members under the care of the Church. They are to be taught to love God, and to obey and serve the Lord Jesus Christ. When they are able to understand the Gospel, they should be earnestly reminded that they are members of the Church by birthright, and that it is their duty and privilege personally to accept Christ, to confess Him before men, and to seek admission to the Lord’s Supper.

57-2. The time when young persons come to understand the Gospel cannot be precisely fixed. This must be left to the prudence of the Session, whose office it is to judge, after careful examination, the qualifications of those who apply for admission to sealing ordinances.

I hope this helps to answer your question.

Footnote

[1] The Corinthian "error elitists" had many problems (don’t we all?). Here are a few of their troubles: (1) divisions (1 Cor. 1:10-4:21); (2) incest (1 Cor. 5:1-13); (3) lawsuits (1 Cor. 6:1-11); (4) excusing immorality (1 Cor. 6:12-20); (5) instruction needed on marriage (1 Cor. 7:1-40); (6) eating food sacrificed unto idols (1 Cor. 8:1-11:1); (7) head coverings (1 Cor. 11:2-16); (8) abuse of the Lord’s Table (1 Cor. 11:17-34); (9) understanding spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12:1-14:40); (10) denying the bodily resurrection (1 Cor. 15:1-58).

Read all thirteen of Paul’s letters. Each one deals with errors in specific churches. Read the first three chapters of John’s Revelation. How many of those churches received a rebuke from our Lord? While we should learn from these churches what not to do, we should also note that there is no such thing as an absolutely perfect church. Every church should be a confessing and repentant body, full of individuals who are continuously professing Christ and repenting their sins. You don’t have to be sinless to partake of the Lord’s Table (an impossibly this side of glory), but you should be a repentant Christian. Whether a child or an adult, if you are unsure of your faith in Christ don’t partake of the meal and do speak with your pastor.

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Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).