Tony Woodlief | Author

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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