Building a Community to Reach a Community

Baptism and Communion for Children

Discerning an appropriate age for our children to be baptized and to begin taking communion.

Posted on January 01, 2013

There is no text in the scriptures that identifies a minimum age for children to be considered ready for either baptism or communion. Therefore the nature of my response to this topic is that of pastoral counsel being offered rather than a commandment being laid down. We will not all come to the same conclusion about best practices in these matters but we need to be respectful and encouraging of one another and keep our focus on the primary command: “Make disciples … baptize them … teach them everything Jesus commanded” (taken from Matthew 28:19-20)

Rather than identifying a particular age, the key factor is discerning spiritual readiness. In writing about communion, Paul said in I Corinthians 11:29 “For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.” Those are sobering words, which underscore that it is wrong for anyone to partake of communion without having a sufficient understanding of what it is about or to do so when not living in a way consistent with that meaning.

What constitutes a sufficient understanding in order to participate, and when do most children become capable of such understanding?

For communion, clearly it is something more than, "I love Jesus and it makes me happy to take communion with everyone else in church”. The participant ought to be capable of:

  • Self-evaluation to make sure one is not participating in an unworthy manner (I Cor. 11:28)
  • Understanding the connection of the elements to Jesus and his death. (I Cor.11:29)
  • An awareness of what it means to be a functioning member of the body of Christ. (I Cor.11:29).

A person who is being baptized should be able to express some understanding of and participation in:

  • repentance and forgiveness (Acts 2:38),
  • being buried and raised with Christ (Rom. 6:3-4),
  • being united with the church, the body of Christ (I Cor.12:13),
  • being filled with the Spirit (Acts 2:38), and
  • being commissioned for service (the pattern of Jesus after his baptism).

The age at which a child can comprehend these things will vary. Parents and other Christians who have frequent contact with a child are best positioned to evaluate whether or not there is sufficient understanding of the truths mentioned above. We do not look for the understanding of a scholar. What is most important is evidence of personal appropriation of these truths.

Should a person be baptized before taking communion?

Some long-time members of ZBCC have observed: “All we have ever known up to now is that children only take communion after being baptized and now we see younger parents who do not follow that pattern”. They have also expressed concern when young children do not appear very engaged in what is being said by the pastor but still take communion when the elements are passed. Their concerns have been gracious and well meaning.

For most of church history, among most denominations, the common practice has been that communion is reserved for those who are baptized members of the church of Christ. Many of us can become testy with the very idea of being bound by tradition and often for good reason. As Jesus taught in Mark 7 traditions have a way of distracting us and even blinding us to simple obedience to the commands of God.

On the other hand, to quickly disregard common practice of Christians over centuries can reveal an inflated view of one’s own discernment. Do we actually believe that we, in 2013, have suddenly become so much wiser than millions of thoughtful and passionate followers of Christ who have gone before us? Before quickly disregarding traditions like these, at minimum we should investigate why they have prevailed for so long before us.

The case for allowing only baptized members of the church of Christ to take communion is not based on an explicit teaching in scripture to that effect, but because there is an inherent logic to that ordering of these two ordinances.

Baptism marks our initiation into the Christian life and Communion is a way to remember Christ in our ongoing relationship to him. It simply makes sense that before we celebrate something that continues, we first declare that it has begun.

Furthermore, partaking of communion is not a private personal experience but a corporate one. We eat and drink together as a fellowship of people united in Christ. If we are not ready to declare publically in water baptism that we have been “baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body” (I Corinthians 12:13), then something seems amiss if we at the same time are willing to declare our fellowship in that body through partaking of communion.

I encourage you to give serious consideration to the traditional pattern of baptism followed by first communion. However, because the scripture does not specifically define an order to things, it is not for me or any other church leader to enforce it as a matter of policy. If there were in fact grave consequence to our spiritual life by reversing the traditional order of things, surely God would have provided more specific instructions about this in his word. If you as parents discern that your child is spiritually ready to partake of communion and do not find the traditional arguments convincing, then follow your convictions. They will be respected.

For interest sake, what is the practice in other churches?

In churches that practice infant baptism, it goes without saying that communion is not taken until after baptism. Among Catholics, communion is often received for the first time by children who are 7 or 8 with catechism and confirmation to follow later. In Lutheran churches children tend to be a bit older, around 10 or 11, most often after receiving instruction in the catechism.

Within the believer’s church movement (our heritage), for most of their history, the teen years were considered an appropriate time to participate in baptism and receive communion for the first time. That may be surprising to you as in recent decades the average age of participants in these churches has become increasingly younger. The implications of that are rarely reflected upon.

We have heard that you, Pastor Lee, will not baptize anyone who is under 12 years of age. Is that a hard and fast rule? Please explain your reasons.

I did make that preference known early in my ministry and in the last 35 years I have baptized only 2 people who were younger than 12 (both of whom were around 11). From the beginning I made it clear that this position was not based on any “thus sayeth the Lord” taken from scripture, but a pastoral care inclination based on a number of factors.

By its very nature, baptism is most expressive when it happens as close as possible to the point where one decisively repents and believes the good news of Christ. It is a sign of our initiation into a new life in Christ, not a reward for having achieved a special level of spiritual maturity. In the very first baptism done by the church in the New Testament, new believers were baptized on the same day they converted (see Acts 2:41). It does not always need to be done quite that urgently and in fact a good case can be made for some preceding instruction for those who grow up in a context without the kind of preparation that the first Jewish believers had. As a general rule, baptism should happen sooner rather than later after one’s conversion to Christ.

So why then would I counsel some delay in baptizing children? It is because children who grow up in Christian homes and whose earliest recollections are of Christ being honored and his word being read and obeyed, represent a unique situation with regards to conversion.

Let it be said first of all that this is an unparalleled privilege and blessing for them. But mapping the progress of their relationship to Christ is not always a simple exercise. Many such children have a hard time identifying a beginning point in their relationship to Christ. They cannot recall a time when they did not think favorably of Jesus and trust him. We usually encourage some kind of early decision, e.g. “asking Jesus into your heart” as a way of clarifying things and addressing their growing awareness that sin is more than making mommy or daddy unhappy.

These moments bond a child to Jesus, and such early expressions of faith are of incomparable value. After all, Jesus did teach us that unless we become like children we will never enter the kingdom of God. (Matthew 18:3)

But a majority of children who begin a relationship to Jesus in their earliest years, go through one or more subsequent crisis decision points, where their faith and commitment catch up, as it were, to their new identity as young adults. Repentance, dying to self, counting the cost, full submission, the call to serve and other essential components to the Christian life all take on bold new meaning and significance as their capacity to understand these things increases and as their life situation brings such matters into sharper focus.

Those of us who prefer children to wait until their teen years consider the symbolism of baptism to reflect more closely the kind of commitments that are usually only possible at such an age. In other words, baptism is more appropriate for a 15 year old who is capable of discerning the vileness of sin and the cost of following Jesus and than it is for an 8 year old who has “asked Jesus into her heart”, is full of love for Jesus and discovers that being baptized makes many other people happy. That in no way diminishes the reality of what that 8-year-old child has; only that baptism pictures other things that usually develop at a later age.

So there is tension between these two realities: a) baptism should happen close to one’s conversion and b) conversion among children growing up in a Christian home often happens through a series of significant stages.

So what really is the problem if younger children who love Jesus are baptized even though their understanding is quite elementary?

For millions of Christians it has not presented any problem. Their memories of their baptism and what it meant at the time may be vague but they are untroubled by that and have simply continued to grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ on into their adult years.

At the same time, baptism is an important marker in our journey with Christ. Particularly in times of doubt and second thoughts, if we look back on a fuzzy memory of a childhood baptism, it may reinforce the notion that our whole experience of Christianity was really little more than a response to social and psychological influences like the desire to please parents. Such questioning is not uncommon among those who grow up in a Christian home, especially in today’s skeptical environment. There is value in being able to look back on our baptism as something substantive and deeply personal.

I acknowledge that my thinking on this reflects my own experience. I began my relationship to Christ at age 7 when I sensed my need for a Savior and said a prayer of acceptance. I was baptized a year later. When I was 18 God did a great work of transformation in my life using primarily the words of Jesus in Luke 9:23, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself daily, take up his cross and follow me.” Baptism is a better symbol of what happened to me at age 18 than at age 8.

But baptism is a singular event. We are not re-baptized every time we come to a deeper understanding or commitment. It has left me thinking about how different my baptism would have been had it been delayed until I was older. Though I acknowledge the counter argument: Simply being baptized in obedience to Jesus is the point, not whether or not you have the best possible experience of that rite.

Given my practice, some parents have expressed this concern:

If my 8 year old really wants to be baptized and take communion and we tell him to wait, what if he has no more interest when he is older?

Practically speaking, there is no difference between that possibility and that of an 8 year old who is baptized and then when older, likewise shows little interest in following Christ. Baptism and communion are events in which God’s grace is active, but they should not be viewed as spiritual immunizations that prevent the loss of faith in later years. Your children are not at any greater risk if they do not go “under the water” as soon as possible, provided that the reasons you give them for the delay have to do with your desire for them to be well prepared. To simply say, “No you can’t because the church has an age requirement”, would be detrimental.

Do our children lose interest in marriage because they have to wait for a legal age and cannot immediately marry the cute little guy they meet in grade 3? That is hard to imagine. Asking children to wait until they are out of elementary school can in fact elevate the sense of seriousness and importance of these events and build anticipation.

In the process of reflecting upon these matters again, I have made some adjustment in the way I want to approach this going forward. I will still encourage holding off on baptism until at least the age of 12 as well as encourage parents to consider the traditional practice of taking communion only when a baptized member of a congregation.

But I will cooperate with the discernment of Christian parents on this. If your child is younger than 12 and more than once requests to be baptised without being prompted with a question, I would be willing to proceed after a one year wait. That intervening one year would afford a good opportunity to discern further if the prompting to be baptized is coming primarily from the work of God’s Spirit within or more from social influences without.

I will also honor the decision of parents to allow their children to participate in communion before being baptized and before the age of 12. I consider it possible that children may be spiritually ready to participate in communion at an earlier age than for baptism because the nature of the symbolism is in some ways simpler. An act of remembering Jesus and his dying for us and being nourished by Jesus living in us, may be more easily grasped by younger children than the baptismal concepts like being buried and raised with Christ, being filled with the Spirit, and being initiated into a life of service. Furthermore because communion is a repeated ceremony there is room to grow into a deeper understanding over time that is not available in baptism.

Let’s remain supportive and not critical when families come to different conclusions on this.

Let’s maintain some perspective here. Baptism and communion are significant to us because they are the only two ceremonial commands that Jesus gave his church. But let’s be clear that the future of the church does not hang on all of us figuring out and following a perfect format. These two ordinances are practiced in many different ways in churches and God in his grace keeps churning out wonderful servants of Christ all the same.

It is tempting to say: “Let’s make a rule for everyone so we can all just say: That’s the way things are done at Zion”. But where scripture is not explicit in its teaching, we must be cautious in stringently enforcing our preferred ways. Let’s accept that we will not all agree here on best practices. There are unique circumstances that must be considered in some cases.

Peer pressure will need to be addressed. Children will ask questions and push back because their friends operate under different guidelines from their parents. One practical suggestion: if children would sit with parents during communion services, servers would not face the uncertainty of whether or not to offer the elements in a row of children. It would also make different practices in families less of an issue among the children.

Regardless, it would still be another opportunity to teach our children that there are core truths about which we all agree and there are secondary matters on which Christians may follow different patterns.

As the scripture teaches in Romans 14, when it comes to such disputable matters:

  1. “let everyone be convinced in his own mind” (v.5)
  2. “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and mutual edification” (v.19)
  3. “Whatever you believe about these things keep to yourself and God” (v.22)

Feel free to talk further with me about any of this in person or by email ([email protected]).

Pastor Lee Bertsch

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