On the excommunication of a child

I remember, the day they told us our three year-old daughter would die, sitting on her hospital bed, Celeste and I together, holding her and weeping. We never really knew despair, I don’t think, until that day. We held Caroline and we cried, and the doctors stood there, because this is all they were good for that day, for standing there and looking at their shoes and explaining the science of the thing inside her head that was going to eat up our child and kill her.

“Daddy,” she said. “God says don’t worry about tomorrow.” Then she burst into tears. We hadn’t taught her that verse, she picked it up from a song or a story or who knows precisely where.

And this is the thing about theology — the knowing of God: there are a great many people who can direct you to the Gospel verse where Christ says this. But it doesn’t occur to many of us, upon learning that we have only months to live, to think about anything but that dread tomorrow. One can know the truth, but to cling to it, when despair intrudes, requires faith. Yet maybe Caroline didn’t fully understand the import of those words. Maybe, if questioned about her faith, she would have been unable to give satisfactory answers.

This is the thing about what men have done to theology — we have made knowing the unfathomable, immeasurable, ineffable God a matter of the human intellect. For centuries the Church brought even the young, baptized children of believers into the holy mystery of the Eucharist — the thanksgiving wherein we come to the table set with the bread Christ said is His body, the wine He called His blood.

But the holy things, in much of Christendom, have been stripped away. Science-minded rationalists tried to parse out how, exactly, the bread and wine become flesh and blood. Their rebellious progeny transmogrified the elements into ineffectual symbols. Communion, once central to Christian worship, became secondary to lectures. The priestly robes were cast aside in favor of professorial garb, which gave way to business dress.

We diminished the Eucharist, but added the work of intellectualizing. Small children were thus forbidden what had once been theirs. Paul’s admonition to unruly Corinthians who gorged and inebriated themselves during Communion meals came to be the proof-text for theologians bent on barring the table. “Let a man examine himself,” Paul told the drunkards. Somehow this came to mean that only those capable of rational discourse about the content of Christian dogma should be allowed to receive the Body and Blood.

Taking a covenantal approach, my church has since its inception allowed fathers to determine, after consulting the elders, when their children may receive Communion. Wife and I took our two youngest to them, five year-old Isaac and two year-old Isaiah, and passionately argued that they be allowed to the Table.

And I got the words wrong. I couldn’t adequately express what this great mystery means. Had I tread more carefully, and been better-versed in Reformed, covenantal theology, perhaps the elders wouldn’t have reconsidered our church’s practice. But I didn’t say the right things. I sowed disagreement, and they realized they were out of accord with the Presbyterian Book of Church Order, and now the little ones in our church have been excommunicated. Our church has come fully into the fold of the denomination to which it has pledged allegiance.

I am grieved for the men who have done this. I don’t doubt their motives. They believe they are protecting children. They believe in a god who curses little ones for coming to the table without knowledge of good and evil. How can I blame them for wanting to protect my children from such a thing?

Here is another thing about theology — we all hew to tradition. The self-deception of the modern Protestant is that he does not, that all his beliefs are derived from the Bible, that this is the meaning of the Protestant battle cry: sola scriptura. No one comes to Scripture a tabula rasa, however. Our understanding of the Trinity, for example, is based on tradition, though it seems plain as day to us when we read our Bibles. The various baptismal practices of denominations follow various traditions, as do practices of communion and preaching and hymnography and liturgy. The most slavish devotee of tradition, in fact, is he who imagines he has none, for he can neither see how he might be wrong, nor trace his error back to its progenitor.

What has been done, then, is that the traditions of the one holy, catholic, apostolic Church, practiced for over a millennium, have been rejected in favor of rationalist European traditions. And the thing is this: our zeal does not excuse our transgressions. Aaron’s sons were zealous. But they sought God on their terms, as have too many of us over the centuries. Aaron loved his sons, and perhaps his sons even intended orthodoxy — right worship — but they departed from it.

And they were devoured. I love the men in our church who have done this thing. And I have no delusions that fire will pour down from heaven and consume them. But they have played with strange fire, God help them. They meant well, but, intending to place themselves between children and a vengeful god, they have placed themselves between our children and Christ.

Many of my friends are fond of believing that all their beliefs are based solely on Scriptures. So tell me then, what of Christ’s command: “Let the little children come to Me, and do not hinder them”? Did He mean only then, to the man-Christ could they come? And if He meant that they are always welcome, did He then mean that He would not be in the Eucharist, that He would watch from afar as we nibble the bread, gulp the juice? And if the latter, then why did He say: “This is My body;” and, “This is My blood”?

Immediately the Reformer must consult his traditions, his logic. What did Calvin say? How did he differ with Luther? What does the panoply of modern Reformers have to say, from their readings of earlier Reformers? Our allegiance to Calvinism is so great that for its sake we must finally rebut Calvin himself, who admitted that communion of small children was the practice of the early Church.

Beginning with the belief that we are merely good citizen Christians consulting our Bibles with the aid of the Holy Spirit, in other words, we rapidly rush to our saints and catechisms. And now we have a problem, dear friends, because the Reformers find themselves squarely in opposition to a millennium of Church practice. It is Tradition versus tradition, and each claims that his is the Bible rightly known.

If only, I heard a God-seeking man complain, God had been clearer on this matter.

Brothers, sisters, He has been clear. He gave us the Church, which gave us the Bible we hold in our hands. He gave us His Apostles, who gave us their students, who gave us the Traditions of the Church. He guided the minds and hearts of the Church fathers as they battled heresies in the early centuries — battles which gave us our understanding (which too many of us now believe we can divine on our own, with our Church-given Bible) of the Trinity, the essence of Christ, the necessity of Baptism. The very fact that, in the year 2010, this so exceedingly complicated should tell us that we have gone astray.

He has been clear, and the apostle our denomination quotes most frequently — St. Paul — admonishes us as well: “Hold to the traditions you were taught by us, either by our spoken word, or by our letter.”

Isaac, Isaiah, I am sorry. Because of my intellectual inadequacy, yours is now held up to keep you from Christ’s Table, at least until the time when you can muster the right words to convince the right handful of men that you have enough rational faith. Of all the ways I have failed you thus far, this grieves me greatest. I am sorry as well for the other children who will now be turned away. I am sorry as well, brothers, if my conviction has forced you down a path to strange fire.

As for Wife and me, how can we come to a banquet when our children are turned away? How can we believe that we were, on that dreadful day we learned our child would die, worthy of Communion by virtue of our knowledge, whereas Caroline, faithful though incapable of intellectualizing, was not?

Let the little children come to Me, and do not hinder them. For whom do we think this was written?


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  2. AAJD

    This is agonizing to read. As an Eastern Christian and parent, I cringe (not strong enough–wince? recoil? feel like throwing up?) at what has happened to you and your kids. My children have all been receiving the Eucharist since they were baptized and chrismated within a month of their births. There is no argument on earth to justify their exclusion. This was the universal practice of the undivided Church for at least the first 400 years, and remains the practice today of Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Christians.

    As C.S. Lewis once said, Christ’s command is to “take and eat”–not “take and understand.” And as I say to those who oppose this because of a rationalistic idea of the child needing to have attained some so-called age of reason: does their mother withhold the breast at infancy until the babe can submit a 1200-word essay “Towards an Understanding of the Importance of Breast Milk” or does the father say to the 2-year-old “no breakfast until you gave give me a reasoned discourse on why breakfast would be necessary for you.” This is madness.

  3. Jonny

    ‘Tis one thing to hold onto one’s true spouse no matter the sin in which they’ve been trapped. That is courageous and virtuous. ‘Tis another thing entirely to cling to one who, however kind and warm, is merely impersonating one’s true spouse, no matter how apparent the lie or how forthcoming the impersonator may be about it. That is just, well, masochism.

  4. Ken Larson

    Some of my children will be denied the table also and, up till now, I wasn’t sure what to think about it. I love the elders of our church as much as you do, but your post leaves me in a quandary. I supported their stand at first, but it might have been out of my own ignorance. This will need much prayer and thought to sort it out. Thanks, Tony, for your thoughts on this matter. Happy Anniversary to you and your better half! Do something fun and wonderful! God Bless you and yours!

  5. Kim J

    In our church we bring children up to the altar for a blessing during communion. Luke (2 at the time) had been getting more and more interested in communion, and after the pastor gave the bread to me, he reached out his hand. He was passed over. As we walked back to our seats he was crying out, “Want Christ! Want Christ! Want Christ!”

  6. ang

    Tony: Your arguments are persuasive and passionate. However, a false humility comes through — you don’t for a moment consider yourself to have an “intellectual inadequacy”. Despite your talented writing skills — you are either not clever enough — or too honest (which happens to be my opinion) — to conceal an arrogance. I am not trying to harm you — I carry my own load of problems — which would be obvious to you if we knew each other. But airing your grievances in such an American and public forum will only help in building that wall between your children and Christ, between your brothers and sisters in Christ and the elders, between the elders and yourself . . . Is this method of dissent part of our tradition — of our interpretation of Scripture? Would you ever consider blogging about a serious disagreement between yourself and your wife — between you and your sons — between you and a friend? Your relationship with your church body should involve as much commitment and covenant as those relationships. The extreme language of “excommunication” can only serve to polarize the issue and vilify your elders– “you either excommunicate children or love them like Jesus did”. It seems like one of the commenters above attends the same church as you — suddenly this issue is pushed to the fore — and sides will be drawn. Should the elders comment on your blog?

    Let me just say that I like your blog — I admire what I read of you.
    I love words and I like how you push, pull and rearrange them. I am not a commenter and I’m sitting here toying with the mouse and the submit button — I do not want you to think I’m angry and meanspirited — because I’m not (well at least not at the moment). These tiny little comment boxes do force one to be a little direct — which doesn’t leave enough room for the softening and warming up of words.

    Celebrate the Eucharist at home with your children and then in love and humility celebrate the Eucharist with your brothers and sisters of “The Way”. As a homeschooling parent you have already offered your children education – offer them Christ.

  7. Jonny

    “[A]iring your grievances in such an American and public forum will only help in building that wall between your children and Christ, between your brothers and sisters in Christ and the elders, between the elders and yourself . . . Is this method of dissent part of our tradition — of our interpretation of Scripture?” Assuming that you’re part of the Protestant tradition and look to Luther and/or Calvin as models, then public airing of grievances is most definitively part of your tradition.

    You do, however, put a fine point on the fundamental issue, however, when you suggest that Tony celebrate “the Eucharist” with his family at home and with other adults at “church.” Certainly, if it’s just bread and wine consumed in personal remembrance of Christ, I’d say “go for it” (and, with Flannery O’Connor I’d also say “to hell with it). However, if it’s something deeper, something which effects and actualizes Communion among and between members of the Church and Christ, something so sacred that deacons in the early Church were martyred simply for their refusal to divulge the hiding place of the instruments in which the bread and wine were consecrated, somethign that requires the community to engage in anamnesis of Christ, well then, that’s a different matter entirely.

  8. Ruth

    I grew up in a church where I wasn’t offered communion until my parents said so and I remember that feeling of being left out while others took and ate. No mystery there. Just the alone feeling of a 6 yr. old being out of communion. In the church we attend now, it is the tradition to offer the Eucharist to children only if they are confirmed. Our children however, simply followed our action at the rail and cupped their hands out for the bread. Eventually servers began giving it to them. The priest noticed and gave in by offering a Eucharist class to families every year. Just like that TRADITION changed and children, one and all are not hindered to come. I grieve for you. We worship with the L’Arche community (mentally challenged folks) and they partake. Do they understand the mystery? Nope. Do I understand it? Nope.

  9. Marc V

    Just as I am, I come to you,
    and worship you,
    give my life to you.
    I find a table you prepared for me
    to commune with you –
    For you expected me just as I am.
    [Darrell Evans, “Just As I Am”]

    My heart is saddened for you, as the place of your refuge, the body you have been part of will never be the same. It stinks (I was thinking of a stronger word) to church shop, but it looks like you will have to go through that again. I pray the Comforter will give you peace in your decision and guide you to the best place for your family.

  10. Devin Mork

    We baptize like Presbyterians but administer communion like Baptists. The function of baptism seems primarily to be recognize someone as culturally Christian, but communion is saved for those who are evidently born-again. I should think that a regenerate child would be easier to recognize than a regenerate adult. A child, in his innocence, does not seem likely to twist words to his advantage, but an adult can be skilled in reciting what needs to be heard, keeping his heart out of it.

    Your underlying assumption that this new method of designating communicants will fail seems to be based on a lack of faith, namely that the Holy Spirit isn’t directing and guiding everything in this situation. Should this new method succeed, praise be to God. Should this new method fail and cause division, praise be to God; he had his people set up a system that would fail in order that something greater would occur, bringing even more praise to his glorious name. How can this be a bad thing?

  11. Tari

    As long as it’s just a symbol, then it makes sense that one has to be able to understand the symbolism to participate. But if you believe it’s more than that, that it is indeed holy medicine for the soul (and more than that still) then it is shameful to withhold it from a child. I think the problem stems from the fact that your church elders believe the former, while you have come to believe the latter. The 2 views don’t mix very well, unfortunately.

  12. AAJD

    I was prompted to go back and review some of the historical evidence on this, and reliable sources indicate that paedo-communion was practiced in the West much later than I earlier thought–until some time in the 13th century (see “Quam singulari,” AAS 2 [1910]: 578). A good review of the evidence may be found in Mark Morozowich, “Eastern Catholic Infant Communion: Has Catholic Dogmatic Teaching Prohibited It?” in LOGOS: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies 49 (2008): 71-90.

  13. emily

    Oh, I too, struggle with this. My oldest son, age 11, still remembers weekly communion at the church we were members of years ago. Now, he wonders why he can’t partake in the quarterly communion and Christmas Eve and Easter communion. I find it interesting that in our current congregation, when I have asked clergy, they tell me communion is restrictive (only baptized members) but they offer no invitation or words of instruction prior to communion during the worship service. I wrestle with being respectful. Thank you, Tony, for sharing your family’s experience.

  14. chuck aka xtnyoda

    I told some friends that we baptists (SBC) are funny. We’ll fight to the death over our strong conviction that the Lord’s Supper is really nothing other than a remembering… then we’ll fight to the death over who can receive… nothing.

  15. the wife

    ang –
    i have been giving thought to your words. and i am still trying to decide if/when dissent is acceptable. it is never pretty, rarely received with a hallelujiah…but if church history and the bible suggest that one’s leading by the Holy Spirit is correct and that those one loves are in error…and one follows the Biblical model of going to the ones in error and finds things still in error…then what? i’m still noodling on it.

    however, i am lost over the encouragement to share the eucharist at home with our children and then share in humility with our brothers/sisters….this suggests that what we would do at home is as holy as what the pastor and elders bless and prepare along with the very act of sharing as a church. we are there in humility. but going to the table and receiving without our children is not linked to humility, for us it is no longer right to deny them what we understand is Christ. and i suppose you can see by my wording that we do not count the breaking of bread at home as equivalent as coming to the Table.

    you are not the only one to bristle at the use of the word “excommunication.” one person said this – what does one call someone who comes to church, professes to believe in God, is a member either literally or covenantally, prays, participates, but is not allowed to the table – the answer is excommunicated. its literal meaning is hard to face. we have other words like that, ones we soften because the most truthful word is just too hard to hear/use. if you are pro-choice you use “fetus,” which is “baby” in Latin, but “baby” makes the pro-choicers’ skin crawl and their rage rise (from personal experience), right wingers prefer “conservative,” infidels prefer “non-believer,” adulterers prefer “affair,” gossipers prefer “prayer request”. . . we all have euphemisms because the one word most accurately representing the truth cuts deeply.

    forgive me if i misunderstood you. i understand your healthy respect for avoiding dissent. in short we believe it is wrong. we reached this from different paths. and by wrong i mean against Truth. perhaps there is a better way to handle all of this. there almost always is i have found.


  16. Briana

    I was just discussing this last weekend at a homeschool conference, in regards to parents wanting to do sacramental preparation at home and how the priests were to be sure that the child was properly instructed. I am happy to not have to worry about it. We’re Eastern Catholic and our children are baptized, chrismated, and receive the Eucharist generally at the young age of under two weeks. Sacraments are sacraments. Whether or not I fully comprehend them- and really who can? They are Gifts. Why should anyone deny them to the most deserving age group? Because they do not “know” enough?
    Priests are the ministers of the Holy Mysteries to us-a bunch of sinners in desperate need of spititual nourishment. They ought not to treat their role as a gatekeeper, only admitting those deemed ‘worthy’ by whatever criteria they come up with. Just curious, why are you not Eastern Catholic yet? I think you’d be a great fit.

  17. Michelle Potter

    Wow, a lot to think about. I was certainly no tabula rasa when I became a Christian at 23, but I think I had a lot less tradition in my head than people who were raised in the church. There are a lot of things that I have been taught, that I suppose must be true, that I just don’t understand and simply do not see in the Bible. Sometimes I hear something and say, “But… that’s not what the Bible says,” and I’m told, “Of course not, I have no idea where people get that idea.” Other times I’m told that it’s in this or that verse, but I just don’t see it. I feel like there has to be a better way to understand God’s word than everyone arguing over what it “really” means.

    I’m also curious about AAJD’s comment that his (?) children received communion as infants. How do you give very small babies wine and bread? I’m imagining maybe dipping a finger in the wine and letting them suckle? (I’m sure a few drops once a week won’t hurt them, of course.) But how do they take the bread?

    Finally, in response to ang’s comment about the use of the word “excommunication,” I wasn’t sure so I looked it up, and it seems that excommunication (at least in the Catholic Church) just means denying someone the sacraments, except for Reconciliation. Well, isn’t that exactly what they are doing? I don’t think it’s hyperbolic at all – it’s literally the right word to describe denying someone communion. (And I’m saying this as someone whose five youngest children don’t take communion at church, and who never really thought about it this way at all. I never would have described this as “excommunication,” but since Tony did, it does seem to be the right word.)

  18. JH

    As someone unfortunately uniquely qualified to chime in, I say, Thank God my family is Orthodox! Our daughter is 16 months old and is terminally ill and has taken communion since she was baptized at seven months (though we had intended and were definitely welcome to do so as soon as she was churched at 40 days). We believe that a baby is as full a member as my 80+ year old godmother. Your membership is not bound to your comprehension, and that membership is fully realized at your baptism. Our priest has stressed to us how important it is for our family, ESPECIALLY our daughter to receive communion during this time.

    Michelle, to answer, the Eucharist is mixed, body and blood in the chalice. As adults we get a bit of each, not having any part reserved only for the clergy, like so many traditions, and undivided, also unlike other traditions. When our daughter was able to swallow, she got a spoon full of just liquid. As her neurological functions have declined, she’s lost her ability to swallow and at this point our priest touches the Eucharist to her lips. You are right about the meaning of excommunication; it literally means being “out of” communion with God.

    It’s hard to read this, especially feeling what I do about my own daughter and her spiritual needs at the end of her life. I read that you’ve visited St. George in the past; come back any time 🙂

  19. Ny

    I am someone who grew up in the Evangelical church and spent some time in a church with a Reformed tradition.

    For the last 7 months or so, I have been attending an Eastern Orthodox church. It is most unusual to me to see children taking Communion. Thank you for posting these thoughts, which have helped to stimulate some of my own, as I process through many new ideas. Thanks also to Tari, the commentor who helped clarify some of that thinking.

  20. SCVET

    I believe in Paedocommunion, as I believe it a logical, necessary, and historic extension of paedobaptism. I also believe in the unity of the body of Christ as it is a logical, necessary, though sadly not a historical reality and extension of taking seriously John 17 and calling ourselves Christians. Thirdly, I think that the only OBJECTIVE part of my ecclesiastical association is that I was born a Presbyterian (though I believe that this logic applies to those who have “made their way” to any denomination and then find themselves embroiled in controversy and doubt). Beyond this (the place to which I have been called for now) everything I do and think relies heavily on my own reason and scriptural interpretation.
    I think that Paedocommunion is highly defensible from within the confines of the Westminster Confession, Canons of Dort, and the catechism of the presbyterian church. I think that those of us who believe in it should continue to defend it from within. The division MUST stop. Once it does, perhaps strands of orthodoxy and agreement can pull the shattered remnants of Christ’s church back into recognizable form…wishful thinking perhaps, but I prefer to think of it as belief in miracles.
    I also recognize that it is not schismatic to go home, and it may be the blinders of my protestant paradigm that make me think it acceptable to submit to a logic which demands growth but withholds nourishment. Perhaps the older traditions represent just this…a chance to go home.

  21. Teri

    We can put up with a lot from our churches when it hurts or troubles us, but when they go after our children it really hurts.

    We left our church after we were informed in a sermon that our son’s birth defect was a result of our (we the parents) sin. Yes, the minister was talking to us specifically, it was a small congregation.

  22. Andrew Lohr

    http://www.paedocommunion.com gives plenty of links pro and con; “Feed God’s babies” at my http://www.lohr84.com says infant communion is right, answering 30+ objections and giving 19 reasons. If Jesus died for our children, and we’re showing his death, we feed them. If we don’t feed the least of His brothers we see hungry, we don’t feed Him. Besides the Eastern Orthodox, some Protestants do; and the basic Protestant doctrine is that sometimes we have to obey God rather than the church.

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