Infant Communion Makes Strange Bedfellows

— James A. Lee II

I have witnessed arguments in favor of infant communion coming from camps that simultaneously practice open communion. While I formerly thought that a causal connection between these practices was illusionary, I'm not so convinced anymore.

It seems to me that a robust ecclesiology prevents the connection of infant communion and open communion. Take for example the Eastern Orthodox churches. These churches practice infant communion but reject open communion. How so? The reason for this is also identified in the fact that many Eastern Orthodox parishes require rebaptism of converts to the East: sacraments can only be administered by and within the Church.1 Therefore, why would the churches of the East-the church-engage in fellowship with those outside of the church? Infants are communed because they are baptized: it is all part of initiation into the church.

But we also see the practice of infant communion by the Episcopal church and voices within the ELCA. In church bodies that welcome all baptized Christians to the altar-even the non-baptized-infant communion is not an issue. Why? Again, the answer is connected to ecclesiology. The church has no confessional borders, the church is open, the church is not defined by propositional truths. Why then would the celebration of the sacrament not be administered to infants?2

The similarity of these two sides is in the immediacy between the administration of baptism and the reception of the Lord's Supper. All that is required of an individual for the reception of the sacrament of the altar is his or her individual participation in the church. The difference is that the Eastern churches do not operate with such a broad and open understanding of the church. The churches of the East are the church; those outside of this communion do not participate in the fullness of the church catholic and orthodox. Our Episcopal and ELCA examples operate with less rigid and defined boundaries. While the churches of the East do not practice open communion, in both instances initiation into the church entails and demands reception of the Supper.

How does a confessional Lutheran who favors infant communion fit into this landscape? It appears that there are three possible options: (1) Infants receive communion because they are baptized. That is to say, confession of faith doesn't matter. Faith is seen primarily in categories of relationship and participation rather than articles of faith and propositional truth. (2) Infants receive communion because they share in the faith of the communities to which they belong, familial and ecclesial; they are communed on account of this faith and in anticipation of their future confession. (3) Infants receive communion because they already have a perfect knowledge of the faith and all of its articles.

While there are issues with all three options, particularly problematic to (1) and (3) is the practice of open communion. Why would a Lutheran parish that practices infant communion not commune all baptized infants, regardless of church confession? While a position against open communion may still be tenable, I fail to see a means of avoiding open infant communion. How could one admit a Lutheran infant to the altar and not a Baptist or Pentecostal infant? It cannot be on account of an infant's confession of faith, for no such confession has been articulated. It appears the tenable options are to conclude (a) that there is something lacking, missing, or irregular in baptism practiced by other denominations, or (b) that while baptism brings an infant into the church, the particular community to which the infant belongs imparts something additional to the infant that is not given in the waters of baptism. Otherwise, how could one not admit to the altar any infant that has received Christian baptism?


James A. Lee II is a Ph.D. student at Saint Louis University and Assistant Pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Worden, Illinois and Zion Lutheran Church in Carpenter, Illinois.


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  1. See John Klentos, “Rebaptizing Converts into the Orthodox Church: Old Perspectives on a New Problem,” Studia Liturgica 29 (1999): 216–34.
  2. This seems to follow the logic found in Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, which then, in 1988, receives official support by the House of Bishops. See World Council of Churches, Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1982), 12.9; Ruth A. Meyers, "Rites of Initiation," in The Oxford Guide to the Book of Common Prayer: A Worldwide Survey, eds. Charles Hefling and Cynthia Shattuck, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 484–99.