An Intellectual Fence?
Does scripture allow us to fence the table of the Lord from covenant children on the basis of an ability to articulate propositional doctrine? Can I keep my baptized son from the meal because he cannot explain the intricacies of substitutionary atonement? No. For while communion may represent a whole package of difficult theological truths that could take a lifetime to understand, what is necessary for participation…every three year old covenant member should be assumed to possess.
Why do I say this? Let’s look at a passage of scripture that gives God’s call to church ministry starting at age three.
Three Year Old Levites
2 Chronicles 31 calls for Levites to begin holy work at the Lord’s house at the age of three:
11 Then Hezekiah commanded them to prepare chambers in the house of the Lord, and they prepared them. 12 And they faithfully brought in the contributions, the tithes, and the dedicated things. … [Certain men] were faithfully assisting him in the cities of the priests, to distribute the portions to their brothers, old and young alike, by divisions, 16 except those enrolled by genealogy, males from three years old and upward—all who entered the house of the Lord as the duty of each day required—for their service according to their offices, by their divisions. (2 Chronicles 31.11-16)
God expected Levites who worked in the house of the Lord do their work beginning right after they were weaned (age three). How does this compare to how we treat the children already marked out by God’s covenant in baptism, today? Do we assume them to be automatically capable for faithful ministry to the Lord? We should.
Baptism is the right fence, and we have already rightly brought our covenant children inside. But where some push for an intellectual fence, usually around twelve, our passage in 2 Chronicles 31 pushes us back out of the realm of making intellect a credible fence. It calls us back to the scriptural action of charitable presumption for the young in the Lord.
Some want to bar children from the table until they can articulate their faith in the Lord in the right fashion, to the satisfaction of the elders. I have known of a child in one such church who was well trained by his parents in the truths of the faith. When he was interviewed by the elders, they thought his answers were too good – he was actually repeating the catechetical answers.
But to these guardians of the table, an accurate answer indicated that the answers were not genuine, because the child did not come up with them in his own child-like words. They failed to pass the child into the communing community within the larger number of the baptized in that church.
The child had been too diligent at learning according to the faith of his parents. Too ready to obey. This resulted in a flawless test, which, in their eyes could only indicate that the child’s obedience was practiced and not genuine. Did they not see this as fruit of faithfulness in that home?
But that test is nowhere found before the calling of young Hebrew covenant members to holy work for the Lord.
We Know Which Jesus
The prime worry of the people who hold out for crystaline doctrinal explanations is that the child may not have true faith, and that they won’t understand Jesus correctly before coming to the meal. They fear that somehow this defies warnings in 1 Corinthians 11.
Let’s imagine a child of our own church, baptized, and as usual, he is giving no troubling evidence that he is worshiping the wrong Jesus. He is just a child raised in our Trinitarian church. Should we restrict him from the table because we can’t know whether he is orthodox in his heart?
Should we just accept every claim to faith we hear? How do we know the child isn’t full of heresy?
There is an answer, and we can see it by comparing the children of our church to a man who wants to join our local body on the first day he visits. You would need to verify who this man is… what does he truly worship? Is he part of the Church?
Now of course, we should be able to reserve a right to judge when any random adult says “I love Jesus, let me join your church!” In that case, we still need to take pause to make certain he is talking about our Jesus, and not the Mormon one, or the Jehovah’s Witness one, because we do not know where this man is coming from. We need to see that he wishes to worship the Triune God of the historic (apostolic) church.
But the key point is knowledge of where a person comes from. For on the other hand, when a tiny baptized saint, and member of a household in our church says, “I love Jesus,” we must already be assured that they are loving the Jesus of that orthodox house.
In fact, if it is a child of our own church, let us act out of certainty that they could not under normal circumstances be referring to any Jesus other than our own Jesus. The child knows only the Jesus he is given in your body of believers. Are your church’s elders orthodox in preaching, and in guiding the child’s parents? Then be assured he is asking for your own orthodox Jesus.
If we question the heart intention of a child of our own church, we must likewise question his parent’s grown up orthodoxy, and even our own preaching. In such a case we would similarly be driven to absurdly question whether “I love Grand-Mom,” means what he thinks it means. But we know it is fully possible for a child to love Grand-Mom, and to mean it, even after rote learning of this phrase on the road right before entering Grand-Mom’s house at Thanksgiving. We would question an outsider, an insurance salesman who said, “Hey, I love grand-mom too!” But we don’t need to question our children, to accept their love as genuine though it has little intellectual formation.
The insurance salesman may indeed love Grand-Mom, but we should test it. We owe him no charitable presumption of love for her. Likewise, it world be absurd not to charitably presume our kids to love Grand-Mom.
We know which Jesus a baptized catechumen is referring to, no matter how young that disciple is. The baptism is of that church and through those parents. So that baptism implies the faith of that church is indeed the faith the child is attached to. And not merely sociologically, but also theologically…spiritually.
Of course this whole thing is an unnecessary exercise, because my point is not that I think we need a verbal profession before opening the Lord’s table to a young baptized eater. I believe the Bible tells us plainly that if a person is baptized and is an eater, then he or she should eat the common meal that is owned by all the baptized. (1 Cor 10 – one body, one loaf). We accept the normativity of faith in the womb (Ps 22, Ps 71, Ps 8).
Rather, my main point is that even if we were to ask for such a confession of verbally expressed faith before allowing the child to the food of the Lord’s house, we would have to work within the restrictions of scripture. And the Scripture will not let us ask for a test that is beyond the complete capability of a three year old. If he cannot pass our session’s inquiry, then we are defying the pattern set in scripture. Three-year-olds have holy work to do for the Lord.<>