The Lord’s Supper is a sign and seal of our mystical union with Jesus Christ. It is also a means by which Jesus unites the different members of his church into one body. Our “coming together” (1 Cor. 11:17) at the Table of the Lord isn’t just a moment on our calendar—the Supper constitutes the church as the body of Christ.
So, what happens when the Supper divides the church rather than unites the church? I’m not focusing on how the heirs of the Reformation have not been able to bridge the differences that first appeared at the Colloquy of Marburg when Luther and Zwingli tangled. I’m focusing on how differences on the Supper sometimes divide the local church at the very point we should find the most intimate unity with our brothers and sisters in Christ every Lord’s Day.
In this essay, I’m reflecting on and lamenting a painful experience in the life of my church to illustrate this point. The real people who were involved are good and honorable, and I remain friendly with many of them. My intention in telling the story isn’t to call them into question or rehash the decisions our elders made. It is simply to lament the divisions in the church—locally and globally—and to help other churches and pastors who may be facing similar difficulties.
The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) congregation in which I serve as a pastor regularly solicits elder and deacon nominations from our members. The nominees are trained and examined by the current elders to ascertain their fitness for ministry. Those who are found qualified are put forward to the church for a vote. Over the years, our elders have occasionally disqualified men for a variety of reasons: an insufficient grasp of theology, biblical or doctrinal issues, personal issues, or otherwise. Recently, we disqualified two men because of their commitment to paedocommunion.
Adherents of paedocommunion reject the traditional practice of admitting children of believers to the Table only after making a profession of faith to the elders. Some churches set a minimum age for such an interview, while others require children to attend a communicants’ class or participate in a confirmation class. Although my church admits young children to the table, our elders interview every child and evaluate their age-appropriate profession of faith before admitting them to the Supper.
Our two candidates asked to make an exception to those portions of the Westminster Confession of Faith and Larger and Shorter Catechisms that speak to this aspect of our doctrine of the sacraments and Communion. Specifically, they objected to the language of the Larger Catechism, question 177:
Wherein do the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper differ?
The sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper differ, in that Baptism is to be administered but once, with water, to be a sign and seal of our regeneration and ingrafting into Christ, and that even to infants; whereas the Lord’s Supper is to be administered often, in the elements of bread and wine, to represent and exhibit Christ as spiritual nourishment to the soul, and to confirm our continuance and growth in him, and that only to such as are of years and ability to examine themselves.
The biblical text for this catechism question is 1 Corinthians 11:28. Our candidates did not believe the Westminster Divines properly interpreted or applied that passage in using it to support the restriction of covenant children from the Supper. Our elders could respond in one of three ways:
- We could judge that their stated exception was merely semantic. That is, the candidates believed the same thing our confessional standards express, but they used different language to state their beliefs.
- We could judge that their exceptions were more than semantic but not out of accord with anything fundamental to our system of doctrine. That is, we could judge that there was a real and important difference, but that it didn’t compromise their ability to honestly share our core confession.
- We could judge that their exceptions were out of accord, hostile to the system of doctrine, or striking at the vitals of religion, which would mean these candidates would not be able to serve as elders.
As we discussed these candidates and their exceptions, several things complicated our already difficult decision. We believed both men to be godly, gifted men who could otherwise govern well. There was some confusion as well over whether similar exceptions had been granted to officers of our church in the past. We also knew that exceptions for paedocommunion had been granted by some churches in our denomination. Finally, since our church already allows very young believers to come to the Table, we wrestled with whether it would make much difference if we allowed this exception.
Ultimately, however, our elders determined that the exception was indeed out of accord and hostile to the system of doctrine expressed by the Westminster Standards. We had several reasons. I want to enumerate them here so that others working through this issue (personally or as a church community) can benefit from our experience.
First, the elders of our church have a confessional duty to welcome only “worthy receivers” to the Lord’s Supper. This means we can’t admit “the ignorant or ungodly.” This isn’t an issue addressed in one question of the Larger Catechism, but throughout our confessional standards.* At the very least, one must have faith to be a worthy receiver, which means the elders need to hear a credible profession of faith before admitting someone to the Supper.
Second, with explicit proof-texts, the language of the standards includes a series of subjective acts that recipients are called to exercise:
- To remember Christ’s sacrifice (Westminster Confession of Faith 29.1).
- “Engagement in and to all duties” that Christians owe to Christ and a “pledge of their communion with Him, and with each other” (Westminster Confession of Faith 29.1).
- To “testify and renew their thankfulness, and engagement to God, and their mutual love and fellowship each with the other” (Westminster Larger Catechism 168).
- “Thankful remembrance” that the body of Christ was broken and his blood shed (Westminster Larger Catechism 169).
- “Examining themselves,” along with “serious meditation, and fervent prayer” (Westminster Larger Catechism 171).
Our elders don’t believe infants are able to actively exercise these things in preparation for or during participation in the Supper.
Third, we concluded that adherents to paedocommunion don’t share the same theological assumptions as our standards regarding the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. The classic Reformed view of the sacrament is that a subjective reception by faith is required for the effective accomplishment and beneficial enjoyment of the sacrament. The view of paedocommunion advocates, however, is that the benefit of the sacrament can be conveyed without any active subjective reception by the recipient. In other words, the receiver can be “worthy” (as a baptized child of the covenant) and yet be “ignorant” of the sacrament’s meaning. Our elders reasoned that this different theology of the sacrament itself would make it impossible for an officer of the church to uphold and protect the confessional standards from which they depart on this vital issue.
For these reasons, our elders determined that these candidates weren’t qualified to hold office in our church. Just as we don’t allow Baptist brothers to hold office because of our differences over the sacraments, we shouldn’t allow someone who sincerely holds to paedocommunion to be an officer in a church whose theology and practice of the Supper is different from our own.
Although I believe our elders made the right decision, it came at a steep cost. Within eight months of denying the exception, we were informed that members of our church were in talks with the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches (CREC) to start a new congregation in our area. This new congregation would allow the practice of paedocommunion. Ultimately, nearly sixty people left our church to join the new church (including an officer, several staff, and many dedicated volunteers). These were friends with whom we had shared our joys and sorrows, good food and drink, and prayer and worship. It was hard to see them go.
Having had some time to reflect on the situation, I am convinced that we made the right decision even though it meant losing more than 10 percent of our membership as we were still climbing out of the hole COVID-19 had created. Those who lead the church and are responsible to guard its worship and doctrine must believe, teach, and defend the shared system of doctrine of the church; otherwise, a church’s confessional unity will die the death of a thousand qualifications.
This experience has also encouraged me to press new members of our church to study their own doctrinal differences with our church. Although we want the door to membership in the church to be as wide as possible, people who join us need to know that we’re serious about our doctrines and practices. I want them to wrestle with the differences to see if they can come into conformity with the church they are joining, especially as aspiring officers. In the meantime, though our churches are disrupted by division over the very things that should give us unity, it is our call and duty to continue to pursue purity and peace, “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13).
Eric Landry is the chief content officer of Sola Media and former executive editor of Modern Reformation. He also serves as the senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas.