Toddler Communion

— Mark Mattes Increasingly, Lutheran congregations are administering the Lord's Supper to children at ever earlier ages. The ELCA's "A Statement on Communion Practices" (II.A.2) had precluded infant communion. But the later "The Use of the Means of Grace," adopted by the Fifth Biennial Churchwide Assembly in 1997, opened a Pandora's box. It said that "mutual conversation" between the pastor, the child in question, and parents or sponsors should be involved to determine whether or not the child should be admitted to the Lord's Table. In Application 37c, it noted that "Ordinarily this beginning will occur only when children can eat and drink, and can start to respond to the gift of Christ in the Supper." The phraseology of "start to respond" is vague. What is meant by response?

St. Paul made it clear that a person must "examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup" (1 Corinthians 11:28). Self-examination entails that one can test to see if one's belief squares with what Paul taught about the Lord's Supper. Given the wondrous gift that is offered in the Lord's Supper, every Christian before going to the sacrament does well to ask himself: (1) have I confessed and repented of my sins?, (2) do I believe God's absolution?, (3) do I believe that I am receiving Christ's precious body and blood, under the bread and wine, for the forgiveness of my sins, (4) do I share in the same confession and unity as had all the saints before me and alongside me?, and finally, (5) will I seek to amend my sinful life?

Those questions would be a tall order for a toddler. But increasingly congregations are admitting toddlers to the Lord's Table. In one congregation a five-year-old went to the table twice because the supply pastor had only blessed him but had not given him the elements.

Several questions need to be asked: If we don't use St. Paul's standard for admission to the Sacrament of the Altar, then where do we get our standard? If as a parent it is my intuition that my four-year-old should receive the Lord's Supper, then how can I defend my intuition except by claiming that it is based on the guidance of the "spirit." But if one should trust such an intuition and not rely instead on God's firm word, then is not my standard nothing other than that of the Schwämerei? Would guidance of the Holy Spirit contradict those words of Paul that he inspired in the Scripture? There need be no debate about this. God's Spirit will never falsify what he has already written in the word.

Even worse, many congregations with an "open communion" policy unquestioningly and encouragingly admit the unbaptized to Lord's Table. How does that square with St. Paul's position as well as apostolic practice? Many congregations replicate the situation in the Book of Judges, where everyone did what was right in their own eyes. In light of toddler communion, it is ironic that many in our culture tend to make their toddlers older than what they actually are but their young adults younger than what they actually are.

While it is true that no one can fully comprehend the mystery of Christ's real presence in the Supper, that is no reason to dumb down those admitted. If anything, it is a basis to be far more cautious about admission to the Lord's Table.


Mark Mattes is Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa.


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