The commands relating to children are different for circumcision and the Passover. In short, in the matter of the Passover, there is no command for the children to partake. In circumcision, there is a clear command that infants be circumcised (Gen. 17:7–14). This fact already establishes a difference between these two O.T. sacraments.
Over the past decades, both conservatives and liberals in churches that practice infant baptism have begun to accept the idea of paedocommunion. Even some people in Reformed circles today, having abandoned their Baptist views, believe that they need to be “consistent” with their “covenant theology” and embrace paedocommunion.
Those in the Federal Vision movement have especially pressed upon the church the need to allow paedocommunion in our churches (as you can see here).
Why do people embrace paedocommunion? The argument goes something like this. Just as baptism is the N.T. circumcision, so the Lord’s Supper is the N.T. Passover. But, they argue, children and infants partook of the Passover. Therefore, children and infants may partake of the Lord’s Supper. They believe that the only major objection to this is in 1 Cor. 11:27–29.
This passage clearly commands things that children cannot do. However, the texts that command baptism also contain commands, such as repenting and believing, that children cannot do; therefore, 1 Cor. 11:27–29 no more excludes children than the commands connected with baptism do.
On the surface, these are cogent arguments. I was once convinced by them myself and thought that paedocommunion might be part of a new Reformation. However, after much study, I realized that the arguments for paedocommunion were merely plausible on the surface. When they are considered more carefully, they become more and more suspect. In this essay, I shall attempt to demonstrate that the argument for paedocommunion fails and that the traditional argument from 1 Cor. 11:27–29 is a valid argument against paedocommunion.
1. The commands relating to children are different for circumcision and the Passover. In short, in the matter of the Passover, there is no command for the children to partake. In circumcision, there is a clear command that infants be circumcised (Gen. 17:7–14). This fact already establishes a difference between these two O.T. sacraments.
2. We must first distinguish between the Passover event and the instituted Passover feast. The first Passover was the Passover in Egypt. The Passover feast was the regular feast that was to be celebrated in commemoration of the Passover event. Why make a difference between the two? God did not give the instructions for the Passover feast until after the Passover event had taken place (see Ex. 12).
3. The key text cited in support of paedocommunion is Ex. 12:5. This is a command that was given for the Passover event. It states that the lambs are to be killed literally “according to the mouths of their eating.” Since children have a mouth which is for eating, they must have partaken of the first Passover, paedocommunionists argue. I find this reasoning plausible. However, this does not mean that the Passover feast also included children. Moses did not give the instructions for admission to the Passover feast until after the Passover event had taken place. Consequently, the admission to the first Passover meal cannot simply be equated with the terms of admission to the Passover feast.
4. One of the specific differences between the first Passover and the Passover feast was admission to the meal. Foreigners did eat of the first Passover, since they were among those who went up with the congregation of Israel (“a mixed multitude” Ex. 12:38, cf. Neh. 13:3). After the first Passover was eaten, Moses gave the rule that “no foreigner shall eat of it” (Ex. 12:43). Thus, we can conclude that the nature of meal changed from that of more general participation to one of lesser participation.
5. But someone might ask, if children could participate in the first Passover, then wouldn’t there need to be an explicit command given in order to exclude them from the Passover? The answer is no. The change from a family meal before departure from Egypt to an instituted ceremony taking place in a central sanctuary demands that we consider the nature of the meal and nature of participation in the meal. Since the participants, place, and nature of the rite change, we must reconsider who is to participate in light of those changes.
6. What is the evidence for child participation in the Passover?
First, there is no clear evidence that young children were to participate in the institutional Passover or at least in all its rites; indeed, there is evidence to the contrary.
Second, all the males were to go up three times a year to the feasts of the Passover, Weeks, and Tabernacles (Ex. 23:17, Dt. 16:16–17). This seems to refer to adult males because each male is to bring a gift to present to God from the fruit of their labor.
Third, the children are specifically mentioned as participating in the Feast of Weeks and Feast of Booths, but they are not mentioned in relation to the Passover.
Fourth, extensive preparation was required for the Passover (2 Chr. 30:18, Ez. 6:20–21). Fifth, this may be what is referred to in Lk. 2:42 when it says that Jesus went up according to the custom of the feast at the age of 12. In sum, the evidence points away from young child participation not towards it.
7. The participation of children in the sacraments in the wilderness, the Feast of weeks, and the Feast of Booths do not prove that they should participate in the Lord’s Supper. It is often argued that since the “sons and daughters” were to participate in the two great Feasts of Tabernacles and Weeks that they are also to partake of the Lord’s Supper. However, in these two feasts, the stranger (ger) also participated, and he is specifically excluded from the Passover (Ex. 12:48). It seems that if one wants to argue from these feasts, one must also say that even non-professors and unbaptized people can partake of the Lord’s Supper. A similar point should be made concerning the sacraments in the wilderness (1 Cor. 10:1–4).
It is often argued that children participated in these sacraments. But this argument proves too much. Not only did children partake of these sacraments but so did animals and the uncircumcised (Ex. 12:38). Consequently, these examples cannot be simply transferred to the Lord’s Supper without further argumentation. Someone may object that of course we would not allow those who do not profess the faith or the unbaptized to come. But this is just special pleading. It is trying to determine the terms of admission before we have decided the terms of admission.
8. Even if children participated in the Passover, it does not prove that children should partake of the Lord’s Supper, since the Passover is not identical with the Lord’s Supper.
The Passover represents only one aspect of Christ’s work and so of the Lord’s Supper. The Passover is certainly related to the Lord’s Supper but so are the other rites and meals of the Old Testament. An examination of the words of the institution of the Lord’s Supper demonstrates this. The cup in the Supper is called the blood of the covenant, which refers not to the Passover but the covenant-making sacrifice in Ex. 24, where Moses said, “This is the blood of the covenant which the LORD has made with you according to all these words” (v. 8).
Second, the Lord’s Supper also points to an expiatory or atoning sacrifice. This was not present in the Passover. An expiatory sacrifice was present in the sacrifice on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16, cf. Heb. 9:1–10:18). Third, the eschatological element is also lacking in the Passover but present in the Lord’s Supper. Consequently, there can be no simple equation of Passover and the Lord’s Supper. In light of all of this, we must base the qualifications for the Lord’s Supper on the thing itself and not on a simplistic correlation of the Passover and the Lord’s Supper.
9. Furthermore, when we do consider the participation in the meals associated with expiatory sacrifices, we find that they are in fact more restrictive than the Passover or other meals. The first example of this is the covenant-making sacrifice at Sinai (Ex. 24). Only Moses, Aaron and his sons, and the seventy elders of Israel ate the meal in that sacrifice. Secondly, the sin offering and trespass offering were given to cover (expiate, atone for) sins.
In this case, it is specifically said that only the priests were to eat it. In the case of the sin offering, the priest was to eat it (Lev. 6:26). In the case of the trespasses, all the priests could eat it (Lev. 7:6). Thirdly, in the case of the great atonement that took place on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16), there was no meal at all. Thus, of those Old Testament rites that are referred to in the Lord’s Supper, there is no clear-cut direction as to participation. However, the weight of the evidence is toward being more restrictive and not less.
10. Moving then to the New Testament, 1 Cor. 11:27–29 is not simply a warning that the Corinthians should wait for one another. This is how this text is often construed by paedocommunionists who want to reduce its force. They say that “let a man examine himself” is simply Paul saying to them, “look at what you’re doing” like he does in 11:17–22. However, the text simply does not say this. It says “whoever eats this bread”; “let a man examine himself”; and “he who.”
The language indicates general rules for partaking, not statements that are limited to the specific circumstances of the Corinthians. This warning includes the sins of the Corinthians but it is a general prescription that is designed to show how one must partake and the consequences of improperly partaking of the Lord’s Supper.
11. Paedocommunionists argue that the warnings in 1 Cor. 11 are the same as the warnings against presumption on any rite of the covenant. Since circumcision was a rite that could not be presumed upon, consequently, they say, the warning against presumption in 1 Cor. 11 cannot be used to exclude infants from the Lord’s Supper.
However, the warnings are not the same. Presumption is assuming that one will be saved because one participates in the rites of the church. This is not the type of warning in 1 Cor. 11. The sin in 1 Cor. 11:27–30 is that of profaning the holy things and an improper care in the use of them. This is similar to what is described concerning Nadab and Abihu who did not regard God as holy when they came near (Num. 10:1–3).
This is why the Levites were appointed, “They shall attend to your needs and all the needs of the tabernacle; but they shall not come near the articles of the sanctuary and the altar, lest they die—they and you also” (Num. 18:3). Misuse of the holy things results in death. Those who touched the ark of the covenant would die specifically because they touched it. This is the type of warning that we have in 1 Cor. 11. Consequently, the ignorant, the wicked, and the unprepared should keep away from the sacrament. Whoever eats of it incompetently or unworthily will eat judgment on himself.
12. The warnings in 1 Cor. 11 cannot be identified with the warnings against presumption in Is. 1 and Jer. 7 (as two examples). Again, this is the result of merely superficial analysis. In Jer. 7 where the children of Israel cry out, “The temple of the Lord!” the warning is against presuming that your sins will not be judged because you have the temple. The specific reason for judgment is still the sins that the people had committed outside of the temple. Similarly, in Is. 1, God says that He hates their feasts and will not accept their sacrifices because of their sinfulness. In that case, God does not judge them because of the misuse of the sacrifices but because of their bloodshed. On the other hand, the warnings in Is. 1 and Jer. 7 do find a parallel in baptism. We must clearly warn those who are baptized that they cannot presume that they will be saved simply because they are baptized.
13. There is no warning like the warning of 1 Cor. 11 concerning either baptism or circumcision. Consequently, it is wrong to make a simple equation of the presumption warnings of baptism and circumcision to the warnings of the Lord’s Supper that declare God’s judgment on those who would handle the holy things of the Lord’s Supper incorrectly. The difference in the warnings is a large part of the reason for the differing terms of admission. To gloss over this difference by saying that they are both warnings is to ignore the most important part of the argument.
Therefore, young children ought to be kept away from the table. There is no evidence that would compel us to believe that the Lord’s Supper should be taken by young children. The arguments for paedocommunion from the Passover fail on two counts: it is not clear that children participated in the Passover feast, and the Passover and the Lord’s Supper do not have a one-to-one correlation. The evidence of the Old Testament actually points in the other direction. The meals of the sacrifices that most directly relate to the rite of the Lord’s Supper were more exclusive not less.
The warning in 1 Cor. 11 that is in line with the warnings related to the heightened holiness of the temple excludes the participation of young children. This is a warning not merely against presumption but against a careless approach to the Table. Those who are young and ignorant are incapable of taking the care that should be taken in the approach to the Table. It is important for us who have charge of the table to be careful in how and when we allow them to come near it. It also reminds us who approach the Lord’s Table of the care that we should take in approaching it.
Author’s Note: I owe many of these insights to the careful scholarship of Dr. Leonard Coppes’ book Daddy, May I Take Communion? You can order it here.
Wes White is a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America. He is currently serving as the Pastor of New Covenant Presbyterian Church, Spearfish, South Dakota. This article originally appeared on his web site and is used with permission.
[Editor’s note: Original URLs (links) referenced in this article are no longer valid, so the links have been removed.]