Take this at face value: communion or the celebration of what Jesus reforms and Paul calls the supper is a ritual of the body of Christ; and as a ritual it is set apart from others as a ritual with a caveat. It is also set apart from other rites in that it is the only ritual which excludes the baptized children of the church. Other rituals wherein baptized children may participate are baptism, prayer, singing, study and being instructed in the weekly worship of the church. It is within this context that this essay is limited. This essay seeks to critique this practice and argue (if not demonstrate) that including all baptized members of Christ’s church in the celebration of the supper is not only for the good of the church, but it is also of her essence.
No other ritual has an overt maledictory warning affixed to it. This does not mean that other biblical and Christian rites do not have consequences for their abuse; rather, the consequences for such abuses are understood by inference. Such is not the case for communion. The Apostle Paul declares that abusing the Lord’s Supper is detrimental to one’s health, both temporal (some are sick) and fatal (some sleep). Whether or not the supper is detrimental in these ways depends upon the participant’s posture during the celebration itself. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes,
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. 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. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some sleep. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.
This essay will not seek to exegete the text in its entirety but will assert certain deductions for the reader to consider. Note only this, the author of this essay assumes that Paul’s addressing this particular issue is notably limited to this particular church in its particular historical context. What this means is that Paul’s words are not primarily prescriptive for all of church history but for this first century body. Note well, this does not mean it has no application, only that it’s original context and intent is primarily concerned with the first century zeitgeist.
To begin with, from the text above one can see that Paul declares that there is a wrong and a right way to eat and drink the supper and Paul calls this an unworthy manner. What this is not is this. Eating the supper in an unworthy manner in the context does not mean eating it as an unbeliever. That might happen, but that is not what Paul is dealing with here. It also does not mean eating the supper in ignorance of its significance. Yet, sadly, this is very often how the table is fenced. What this error is can be seen by considering how Paul addresses the Corinthians’ practice in the first century.
Paul addresses his hearers with corrective words saying first of all that their coming together as a church is not in unity but in division. Paul uses sarcasm and irony to make his point when he says that these divisions are necessary in order to prove who is genuine and who is not. One might well think of James’ words to his hearers when he addresses the rich abusing the poor in his letter making the same point. Were James to use sarcasm, he might well say that the rich debasing the poor is necessary and good in order to recognize who is genuine among you. It is sarcasm because it actually is not good to make social distinctions in the body; it is ironic because in actuality their behavior proves the opposite—their victims are the genuine ones.
The first issue Paul deals with then is disunity amongst the members of the body. There is disunity in the Corinthian church because when they come together to celebrate the supper eating is done in seclusion and drinking is done in excess. Both aspects of the supper, eating and drinking, are in view here. In eating, there is to be no isolation from the rest of the body: each goes ahead with his own meal…another goes hungry. In drinking of the cup there is intoxication: another gets drunk. As said before, this essay is a simple presentation of the text, so this will not be a laborious argument. If these are the two primary foci of Paul’s rebuke, let us apply it to today’s church experience in the supper.
To begin with, in today’s celebration of the supper there is hardly enough bread for anyone to get his fill and if anyone were hungry he would go away the same because the portions are miniscule. Secondly, regarding drunkenness in the cup…. Need more be said? 90% of the church uses grape juice and even when churches obey Christ and use wine, the portions are so microscopic no one could get drunk. Briefly, here we encounter an entirely different milieu than the early church. Today’s church is not in the same situation as that of the early.
The second issue Paul addresses is that of committing this principle of disunity. Note his focus. If his focus is on disunity and he addresses participants regarding their violating a principle, what is the remedy? Paul exhorts his hearers to remedy the situation by examining whether or not they are in violation of disunity. This is the needed area of focus by the worshipper. Paul’s words in vv. 27ff are not to be isolated from his previous points. When Paul says, let a man examine himself, of what is the man to examine himself?
Today’s churches apply the text in this way. They call for all believers prior to partaking to examine whether there is any sin of which they are not repentant. They call for believers to examine their hearts to make sure they are not at odds with any other believer. They call for all worshippers to examine whether or not they understand what the supper is all about; that is, they are to examine whether or not they know what the bread and wine signify. These are basically the parameters of the call to examination. But this begs the question as to whether or not this is to what Paul was referring. Not only this, but in churches where confession is a part of the liturgy these violations are dealt with early in the service. When it comes time for the supper, all sins are already confessed and repented of. Who needs to examine himself again?
Since these churches believe that this is what Paul was referring to, it is the responsibility of each believer to ensure that he is not violating Paul’s warning and is able to examine himself accordingly. Taken this way, then, these churches seek to “help” others not violate Paul by determining who is able or not able to examine and discern. Taken this way, these churches esteem young children as powerless to apply Paul’s words. Since children cannot adequately examine themselves, they are not to participate. And since Paul so sternly warns and the consequences are so dire, the leaders of the church must guard against and provide protection for those who might violate this mandate (notice Paul never mandates this).
This effort is thoughtful and it is very important to help others keep from sinning, but regarding this issue, it is a non-sequitor. That is, it does not follow that children are to be kept from participating in the supper because more than likely they are not mature enough to apply Paul’s words as the elders understand them to be. It does not follow precisely because of that which Paul is concerned. Children ought not to be barred from the table until they are able to examine themselves and discern the body (or bread and the wine as they take it) because that is not what Paul is worried about. What Paul is concerned with in this text is social distortion; what Paul is concerned with here is active prejudice; what Paul is worried about is excluding those who belong. In a simple twist of irony, these avid men are actually making divisions among the body that Christ would oppose. One might argue that were paedocommunion the issue of Corinth, Paul would say that they are not discerning the body rightly or that they are guilty of the body and blood.
This essay will assert that Paul does not have exclusion of children in view here unless they are in danger of violating the principle of disunity. Said another way, the discernment Paul requires is simply the opposite of what Peter was doing when he refused to eat with Gentiles. He was not discerning the body rightly. When Paul calls for the examiner to discern the body, he is not expecting the participant to explain the difference between the Roman Catholic, Reformed, Lutheran, and modern evangelical view of the supper. While this might be an application of what Paul was saying, it was not his primary concern. Paul moves fast and furious as he speaks of bread, wine, body, and blood. This sacrificial language is in reference to the elements of the meal and are the basis for unity in the body.
In the passage in view, when Paul wants to refer to the bread and the wine he does so by their nomenclature: bread and wine. When Paul calls for the man to discern, he calls for him to discern the body. This essay’s position is that the body with which Paul is concerned follows from his previous argument of making distinctions and divisions in the church body. What this means is that the positive side of the supper is unity: Jew and Gentile are united; rich and poor are united; old and young are united. The bread is from multiple grains and the wine from multiple grapes but there is one loaf. To divide any of these groups is to ask for judgement.
In conclusion, this essay argues that children are not in the interest of Paul. There is no way to bring a charge of disunity and division against children in the church unless they are doing as they see and if that is the case, don’t fall asleep!