Deep-in-the-Bones Belonging

Three years ago I accompanied 30 Dordt College students to a Greek Orthodox church. We stood for most of the three-hour worship service, which was conducted primarily in the Greek language. As we joined the congregation for lunch afterwards, we agreed that it was a memorable experience. But there was one part of the service that stuck in my mind most vividly.

As the members came forward for communion, I spotted a young mother with a newborn infant. I watched as the priest served the mother, and then placed a drop of wine and a crumb of bread on the lips of the infant.

All baptized members who were present—including a little baby—were nourished at the Lord’s table.

That scene drove me to my study to examine the link between baptism and communion. I studied the Scriptures and I examined synodical reports from a variety of Reformed denominations around the world.

I finally concluded that the historic practice of the Christian Reformed Church simply did not make sense. So I was overjoyed when Synod 2006 proposed that all baptized members be welcomed at the Lord’s table.

It is not my purpose here to summarize the rationale for synod’s proposal. I trust that every member of the denomination who is passionate concerning this issue will study the issues surrounding this matter carefully, prayerfully, and communally. My purpose is to ponder this proposal from a pastoral point of view.

Why? Because it’s difficult for us to imagine changing our rules for participation in the Lord’s Supper.

Receiving communion is such a spiritually profound event that making changes to our communion practice makes us uneasy. Even if we rationally agree with the proposed changes, something inside us deeper than our rationality wonders if we are tampering with divinely instituted procedures. Furthermore, changing communion practice is not an isolated change; it has implications for profession of faith practices, church education, family devotional life, and ministry to children and youths.

How might we as a denomination implement such a dramatic change? This is what I envision:

Host a Congregational Discussion

For starters, it would be wise for every Christian Reformed congregation to host a discussion of this matter or for a group of congregations in one area to do so together. The purpose of the discussion would be to clarify the biblical and theological groundings and the historical complications surrounding inviting all baptized members to the Lord’s table.

Such clarification is necessary because this type of issue easily produces stereotyped suspicions. I have heard complaints that this decision is simply another sign that liberalism has taken over the denomination. However, the strongest cases for changing our communion practices are being made by conservative Reformed theologians who (rightly) place great emphasis on Old Testament covenant theology.

This is not an issue that falls into neat “liberal vs. conservative” stereotypes, and we need opportunities for thoughtful, informed reflection to process the fundamental issues involved.

Address the Topic in Church Ed Classes

The Sunday after the congregational discussion, it would be wise to devote every church education class to this topic, from the 3-year-olds to the adults, so that especially the baptized members can begin to participate with all their heart and mind. A special one-session curriculum might be distributed to the entire denomination, along with a family devotional booklet (see next point). Ideally, this would occur one or two weeks before a communion Sunday.

Some may say, “A baptized infant who receives communion has no understanding concerning her participation, so why should we focus on growing the understanding of our child participants? If understanding is important, we should wait for some sort of verbal faith commitment.”

Our cue here comes from Exodus 12:26, where we find the instructions for celebrating the Passover: “And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord.’” Communion is the Passover transformed through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Children were not required to understand the meaning of the Passover in order to participate, but by a   certain age their intellectual faculties enabled them to ask questions that invited the parents to provide a personal testimony concerning the meaning of the ceremony.

A Sunday school class can “set the table” for a more personal follow-up discussion as described in the next point.

Distribute a Devotional Booklet

Ideally, every member of the congregation would receive a devotional booklet dealing with communion on the same Sunday it is examined in the church education classes. Everyone would be encouraged to use the booklet for personal or family devotions.

This series of short devotionals might describe the meaning of baptism, the Passover, how Jesus transformed the Passover into a communion meal, and the significance of professing one’s faith publicly. Each devotion might include optional prompts, inviting the parent(s) and/or older children to supplement the devotions with personal testimonies or illustrations from their own lives.

Re-Examine the Role of Profession of Faith

The role of profession of faith in the life of the church is difficult to sort out for two reasons.

First, the Bible says next to nothing about our current practices (for this reason the forms in the Psalter Hymnal contain no biblical instruction). The Reformers generally agreed that the Catholic sacrament of confirmation had to go, but each one reworked it in a slightly different way. John Calvin developed the practice of profession of faith, recommending that children profess their faith at the age of 10 (a recommendation that was rarely adopted). His recommendation was based more on practical considerations than on clear biblical instruction.

Second, our children are being raised in a culture that is commitment-averse, and we as a denomination have not yet addressed this cultural condition in a meaningful way. As a result, fewer children and teens are making profession of faith.

Thankfully, the committee reporting to Synod 2007 on these matters makes many wise recommendations; it may well be time for us as a denomination to revitalize our practices of encouraging our children and teens to publicly profess their faith in Jesus.

Practice Charity and Patience

I find it instructive that in the early days of the Reformation, the principal issue that divided the Reformers was the theology and practice of communion. This is not surprising: the Bible says so little about it that we are forced to draw conclusions based on very limited instruction. It’s no wonder that so many differing conclusions exist on these matters. We need to recognize that we are navigating territory that requires a great deal of charity and patience.

John Calvin wisely practiced the rule that ecclesial decisions should be based both on biblical teaching and on the pastoral needs of the community. One might argue that linking a public profession of faith with the opportunity to participate in communion was a wise pastoral move in his context of battling the ignorance and superstition that surrounded the sacraments, but we live in a very different context now.

Our children and teens need to know deep in their bones that they belong to the body (just as we all need to know this), and the Lord’s table communicates this glorious message of grace in ways too deep for words.

I believe that our children’s need to belong has opened our pastoral eyes to see what the Bible has always taught: that all of God’s baptized children are welcome to partake of the feast.

For Discussion
  1. How do you feel about kids being invited to the Lord’s Table? Discuss.
  2. What does the Lord’s Supper mean to you? What do you know deep in your bones?
  3. How did this article impact your understanding of the issue of children and communion? What are the questions that you have?
  4. What would you say to a child who asks to come to the Table?
  5. How can you best study the issues surrounding synod’s proposal, such as baptism, the Passover, Jesus’ last supper, and profession of faith? What help do you need to do this?
  6. What would help your congregation to discern this issue communally and come to mutual agreement?

About the Author

Syd Hielema serves as the director of the CRC's Connections II project. He worships at the Meadowlands Fellowship CRC in Ancaster, Ont. 

X