I Corinthians Ch11 v27-29

I finished last week’s article by noting the concern that we might be putting our children in spiritual danger if we allow them to participate in communion before they are ready (i.e. understand what it means).  In some Church circles, this doesn’t only affect children, but those of any age who might not meet the perceived criteria for Communion: moral or intellectual.  This has led to a practise known as ‘fencing the table’, which in varying degrees of intensity erects ‘safeguards’ to prevent people taking communion who are deemed ‘unworthy’ in some way.  There may be a short talk outlining the dangers of taking communion in an unworthy way, and warning people not to participate unless they are sure they are in good standing with the Lord.  In its most extreme form, it has required an interview with a minister before access to the table is granted.  While to my mind this represents an inversion of communion (which is precisely about what God is saying to the unworthy, rather than what the worthy are saying to God), the passage it is based on is found in I Corinthians.


Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.  A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks the cup.  For anyone who eats and drinks without recognising the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgements on himself…

I Cor.11:27-29


Personally, I am not convinced that this is a passage that can or should be used to bar children from the table.  Although I am aware that this article falls short of an exhaustive exegesis of the passage, a few comments, shaped by the immediate question we are discussing (children and communion), are in order:  Firstly, Paul is not addressing children.[1]  If this passage is about excluding anyone from communion, its first reference would be to adults who are behaving in a way that excludes others from the fellowship of the Church (11:17-22)!  It is worth underlining the fact that the issue is not ‘ignorance’, but rather a disunity within the Church that subverts everything communion signifies.  The ‘body of the Lord’ that is not recognised in the act of communion (v.29) is the Church, not the bread (notice lack of reference to blood/wine).  Paul is concerned about behaviour that undermines the fellowship of the Church, not about a lack of theological understanding.  And his call to ‘examine’ ourselves is not a call to spiritual or moral introspection, but is rather a contrast to being examined or judged by the Lord (see v.32-33) in terms of whether we are behaving in a way that undermines the unity of the body of Christ.    Finally, Paul’s application in the light of this concern is not: ‘don’t take communion’.  He doesn’t seem to anticipate any exclusion from communion (which would be a form of excommunication) – not even a short term break until he is able to visit and give further instruction or guidance (v.33-34).   It is rather to keep taking it, but to repent and take it in a context of unity and love (v.33).   In short, this passage has little to say to this issue of children taking or not taking communion.


It always intrigues me when people who have their children baptised then don’t let them have communion on the basis that they don’t understand what it means.  There are always three questions I want to ask.  The first is whether our children understand baptism?  If not, was that a reason not to baptise them?[2]  Secondly: why is it that there are children as old as six or seven who still don’t understand what Communion is about?  Why haven’t they been taught by their parents?  Thirdly, where does the idea come from that we have to have a full intellectual grasp of all that a sacrament means before we can enjoy it?  Should we apply this criterion to adults? …and who gets to decide who qualifies?  We all take communion without fully understanding its meaning or significance.  We might grasp parts of it, but isn’t this the point: it’s meant for those of us who don’t get it – and for those of us who fail to live even in the light of the bits that we do get… those of us who experientially, intellectually and morally fall short of everything signified in this act of worship.  And it is precisely by participating that we grow in our understanding, appreciation and response to the Gospel it embodies.


Which leaves one question for the Anglicans amongst us: is there a place for Confirmation?  Confirmation has long endured the stigma of being without a foundation in Scripture, and thus a rite in search of a theology.  There is often a reticence to attribute too much significance to its role as a rite of passage, with many people simply not bothering.  But it may become the means by which a young person consciously and publicly makes the faith their own.  There is a place for an ‘adult’ profession of faith, but from within the Church.


The idea that children shouldn’t take communion is often predicated the assumption that children are somehow not capable of authentic spiritual understanding and experience.  In our next article (the last in this series) I will show that this is an assumption that is in fact very dubious indeed.  Of course we know from Scripture children can at times demonstrate a greater capacity to respond to Jesus than adults. But, in addition to such considerations, we will hear the testimony of the Church throughout the years.


[1] And it is interesting to think about what he would say if he were.  Would he draw on Deut.1:32-40, where the ‘little ones’ are explicitly not caught up in the full judgement of the adults in the congregation?

[2] See previous articles about baptism.  Sacraments are God’s visible words of commitment to us, rather than our words of commitment to Him.  Both baptism and communion articulate the promise of His covenant, which as we have seen is to be participated in by believers and their children.  Sacraments are administered on the basis of the parents faith. 

Print Friendly Version of this pagePrint Get a PDF version of this webpagePDF