Like many Baptist congregations, the church I serve practices what is called open Communion, rather than closed Communion. This means that every professing believer who is present for our Lord’s Supper services is welcome to participate, whether they are a member of our local congregation or not. By extension, it also means that every true believer is welcome to participate no matter what his or her age may be. Any and every child who has received the Lord Jesus as Savior and Lord and sincerely intends to follow Christ is encouraged to commune with us at the Lord’s Table. And we do not have any examination process to determine a child’s readiness for Communion, as we do with baptism. We simply leave it up to the parents to determine whether a child should receive the elements of the Supper.
That’s the issue that I want to address in this article. When should parents allow their children to receive the Lord’s Supper?
Let me preface my answer by clearly stating that when it comes to the spiritual development of children, parents (with the partnership of their local church) should be very aggressive. The flesh, the world, and the devil do not wait to corrupt our children and lead them away from God. And we should not wait to sanctify our children and lead them to Christ. So I would say to parents do not wait to teach your children the importance of regular church attendance, the priority of prayer, the blessings of generosity, and the duty of service to God and others. But I believe that the Lord’s Supper is a different matter. I think that parents should be slow, cautious, and prayerful about when and how they introduce their children to the Lord’s Supper. I believe this is the proper approach, because of the nature of the Christian ordinances.
There is no redemptive value in the ordinances. God saves sinners – both children and adults – by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, plus or minus nothing. So baptism and the Lord’s Supper have no saving power. But these Christ-instituted rituals are symbols of salvation. That is, baptism and the Lord’s Supper are divinely revealed pictures of what it means to be saved. Through these ordinances, we identify ourselves with the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, along with all the redeemed saints of God. They mark us as saved people; they do not bring salvation. For this reason, it may be best that parents keep their children from participating in the Lord’s Supper until they are old enough to understand the meaning of it and can receive it with faith, repentance, and thanksgiving.
In 1 Corinthians 11:28-30, a corrective against the abuse of the Lord’s Supper, Paul says, “Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (ESV). These are stern warnings and exhortations about the importance of the Lord’s Supper. And it would be foolish to fail to factor them into your family’s deliberations about when young children should receive Communion.
Now, if you decide that your young children should participate in the Lord’s Supper with you, you are not violating the scriptures. There is no direct statement in scripture to regulate what age children should be when they receive Communion for the first time. So that decision really is left to the discretion of the parents. But I commend to you that the wisest thing for your child’s spiritual development may be to wait to receive the Lord’s Supper.
Wait until your child understands the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper symbolizes the broken body and shed blood of the Lord Jesus. In other words, the elements of the Supper point us to the cross, where Jesus became our substitute and died to pay the penalty for our sins. So I would recommend that parents wait until their children have a basic and clear understanding of the gospel, before they give them Communion. Don’t give it to them if they are not able to relate to the elements beyond having juice and crackers in church. Wait to make sure they understand that the “juice and crackers” point to what Jesus did on the cross. And wait for them to understand more than the facts; wait for them to understand the meaning of the cross.
Wait until your child professes saving faith in Jesus Christ. The Christian ordinances are just that, Christian ordinances. So the best standard for when a person should receive the ordinances is when they have become a Christian through saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Don’t confuse your children about salvation, give them a false confidence of salvation, or lead your children to discount the value of Christ’s atoning work, by allowing them to take the Lord’s Supper before they are able to receive it in a meaningful way.
Wait until your child is mature enough to make an independent and credible decision to follow Jesus Christ. The Lord’s Supper bids us to live in a way that honors the great price that Christ has paid for our salvation. This is why we are commanded to examine ourselves before we receive the Supper. We play the hypocrite, dishonor Christ, and invite judgment on ourselves when we take Communion, but live in contradiction to the spiritual values that the Lord’s Supper symbolizes. And when parents allow this to happen with their children, they inadvertently teach their children how to “play church” without being a fully devoted follower of Jesus Christ. So wait until your child is ready to live for Jesus before you allow them to take the Lord’s Supper.
Don’t be in too big a hurry to have them participate in the Supper that you don’t seriously process the spiritual implications of their participation. And if they ask you why they can’t have the juice and crackers like everyone else (and, at some point, they will), tell them why and explain to them the wonderful plan of salvation through faith in the cross of Jesus Christ. In fact, tell them about the meaning of the Supper as often as you can. Pray diligently for the salvation of your young children. Make sure that you live before them in such a way that your lifestyle does not contradict your witness. Lead them to participate in the elements of corporate worship and ministry programs in your church that are appropriate for your children. And wait with confidence for God to work.