This is part of our No Longer Sola Series.
"The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread."
– 1 Corinthians 10:16-17
Imagine you're a pastor. It is your job to be a steward of the Mysteries of Christ. Knowing that you hold in your hands God Himself, and that this gift is so powerful that an unworthy guest to the Table might harm himself by partaking of God without faith… how would you handle that responsibility?
Would you assume that anyone coming to you is a heretic or an unbeliever so that no one would benefit from abiding in Christ through the Eucharist? No. What about coming up with a formula, if a person is this young or this old or this disabled, we can assume they might be heretics so we will refuse them the Supper? Should we assume that any of our baptized members are heretics in order to somehow protect them?
The practice of refusing the Lord’s Supper to certain people based on age or ability is totally inconsistent with the sacramental theology of the Lutheran Church and her confessions; certainly it is inconsistent with Christianity in general. However, it is a practice that was inherited from the beginning of the Lutheran Church and it never went away. Most Lutherans (in the Missouri Synod at least) have developed certain theological assumptions in order to justify their continual prevention of communing the baptized. Below are the various assumptions that have been used:
The first assumption that you might hear is that there is no certainty the baptism “took”. While I don't think this assumption represents the Lutheran position well, nevertheless, it is an assumption I encountered. The baby can’t talk or understand what is going on around it and confirm for all to hear that she believes. Pastors are stewards of the mysteries, as St. Paul says, and it would be irresponsible to give the blessed Sacrament to this little child to her judgment. Since we can’t know until the child can speak for herself, it’s safer to wait. Therefore, you wait till baby girl reaches an age of discretion and hopefully (after catechesis with Luther’s Small Catechism) she then confesses publicly that her faith is the same as your own and she’s confirmed and can receive communion.
This first assumption caused me quite a bit of cognitive dissonance, and says more about Baptism than it does about Communion. The Formula of Concord teaches the following:
“...there is only one kind of unworthy guests, namely, those who do not believe”
“...no true believer, as long as he retains living faith, however weak he may be, receives the Holy Supper to his judgment.”
“...the worthiness of the guests of this heavenly feast is and consists in the most holy obedience and perfect merit of Christ alone… and not at all in our virtues or inward and outward preparations.”
Does God actually do in baptism what Lutherans believe and confess? This first assumption seems to suggest that the practice of delaying admission to the table means that there is immediate uncertainty as to whether or not God is doing what He promised to do in placing His name on that child - namely giving and sustaining their faith. It suggests that catechesis is more powerful and effective than Baptism. Perhaps Lutheranism absorbed an overly rational view of what it means to have faith?
If the Formula is correct, then the only reason for worrying that a baptized baby would receive communion to their judgment is if the little one has rejected the gift they were given by the Holy Spirit. This brings us to the second justification, or assumption, that some use: We don’t know if the child has rejected their baptism or not. With this mindset, it is at least acknowledged that Baptism works and is efficacious. What is uncertain, then, is the child’s faith after he is baptized. How do we know that the child isn’t living in unrepentant sin? How do we know that the child isn’t internally rejecting his Savior?
To this I say nonsense. I’m sorry, but the very idea that a child not yet able to make decisions on where he will live or what he will eat can possibly decide to reject Christ is absurd. The idea that a toddler whose worst sin is throwing a temper tantrum when he’s overtired is living a life of unrepentant sin is insane.
And supposing these things even could be true, how does their lack of verbal ability make you less certain about their salvation than the college-aged student you are communing who hasn’t had a real conversation with you in three years? You have no idea what he is doing with his life and yet you keep communing him. What about the middle-aged man who you are suspicious comes just because his wife makes him? Do you stop communing him until he’s made some sort of public confession of faith that reassures you he still actually believes?
Christ says “Let the little children come to me.” And we refuse them for no reason in particular. We hold them to an impossible standard, one they cannot reach, and our adult members we hold to almost no standard at all. Scripture is clear that when it comes to faith children have the purest faith. It is as adults that we learn to falter, and so why are we communing any adult who comes to the altar without examining them at all, but refusing little children who have not shown any outward sign of rejecting their faith? The hypocrisy nullifies any merit in this justification.
Moving on to the third assumption: the baptized baby is heterodox. This assumption grants that Baptism always gives something, as opposed to all or nothing in the first assumption. But it’s as if Baptism did not give a complete or whole faith. What was given is good enough to be saved but not good enough for admission to the altar. Therefore, what was begun in Baptism must be completed in catechism in order for unity in the faith to be present.
There is little difference here between the baptized Lutheran baby and the Baptist, Methodist, or Roman Catholic individual who desires to join the Lutheran Church. All are heterodox Christians and catechesis is necessary to correct errors in belief. Which begs the question, what errors? For an adult who has been part of a heterodox church, it makes sense that errors would be introduced throughout their instruction in that church body. But for the baby who is baptized and catechized with the “pure” Gospel of Lutheranism… how can they be in error? Did baptism not give the one truth faith as God has promised us?
When this third assumption is behind delaying admission, again, it is saying something about Baptism. Baptism has not granted full unity to Christ and His Church. In fact, Baptism is fundamentally something imperfect and implies that the Holy Spirit only bestows a second class type of faith that needs to be informed and made full by catechesis.
A fourth assumption is that the Lord’s Supper is not necessary in the same way that Baptism is necessary. According to this train of thought, Baptism gives full unity to Christ and the full gift of faith; the baby is not deprived of Christ in any way. This assumption reduces the Lord’s Supper to a redundancy of sorts, something you only need if you reach a developmental milestone in the mind where you recognize your need for the Supper.
This possibility I could not reconcile with the words of the Small Catechism which teaches that the Sacrament gives forgiveness of sins, life and salvation. Nor could I reconcile this with what Jesus says in John chapter 6. If the supper isn’t necessary for infants and toddlers or anyone who can’t cognitively express their desire for the Supper, then the rest of us don’t need it either. It has even been told to me by certain Lutherans that, as important as the Supper is, you’re not denied of Christ in any way as long as you have Baptism and the Word.
These are the various assumptions I witnessed and heard over the years as a Lutheran. The practice of denying children, the elderly and the disabled admission to the Eucharist and the various justifications that have been given to support it form a situation that clearly demonstrates how incorrect practice leads to false doctrine.
The Missouri Synod in particular is opposed to communion of the baptized, and I simply could not agree with the position. John 6 teaches the beautiful relationship between faith and the Supper. The exegetical gymnastics that Lutheranism does to get out of infant communion are unnecessary.
"Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”
- John 6:47-59
Baptism. Faith. Eucharist. All of these are necessary for our salvation as they are the mysteries that Christ has given to His Church in order to communicate His Grace, His very life to us. He instituted the Supper so that all of the baptized might share in His life, in His victory over sin, death, and the devil.
Our newest kiddo is all set for Holy Baptism on Holy Saturday. A great joy and beauty in this event is that little Christine will be admitted to the Eucharist for the first time on Pascha. As part of the one Body of Christ she will partake of the one bread and participate with us and the whole Church in the blood of Christ.
The Orthodox Church believes and confesses that once one has been Baptized and Chrismated that God really and truly has united that person to Himself. In these gifts He makes Christine truly worthy and well prepared. There’s no reason to doubt that God has done what He promises to do in the mysteries.
Update (4/8/2018): I have been asked if I listened to the Issues Etc radio interview (2015) with Professor John Pless on Infant and Toddler Communion. Yes, I have. Towards the end of that interview he articulates assumption number 3 above, implying that communing infants and toddlers leads to Open Communion (which is the norm in the LCMS ALREADY) and that baptized Lutheran babies are heterodox, that they don't have the same faith as catechized Lutheran youngsters or adults. I had Prof. Pless for multiple classes at seminary and I listened to Issues Etc religiously in high school and college. The interview was extremely disappointing. I believe, at best, Prof Pless misrepresented and distorted the facts and multiple aspects of the question. Sadly his Open Communion red herring is the most often repeated objection I have heard from LCMS Lutherans. As far as I can tell he has not interacted with any of the papers by LCMS pastors that have thoroughly addressed his points, one of which was actually submitted to the Fort Wayne seminary for comments from the faculty. I was disappointed that Rev. Wilken, the host of the program, did not ask any probing questions. His program most certainly influenced towards seminary and Fort Wayne as the campus I chose. For someone who brings on Terry Mattingly to talk about media bias in religion reporting I was surprised, that interview was a fine example of European styled advocacy rather than an attempt to lay out both sides and let the listener decide for themselves. The author of one of the papers I linked to in the post "Drink of it all of you" has been a guest on the program before and would be a good person for Issues Etc to bring on as he remains Lutheran by conviction and has laid out an extremely good argument that has already been submitted to Fort Wayne and St. Louis seminaries for comment. Interviewing this pastor would demonstrate that Issues Etc is still about genuine discussion of theological topics. - Iakobos