Communion has often been the source of much controversy, division and confusion. That alone suggests to me its importance. The devil takes little interest in things of little importance, but he will work tooth and nail to undermine that which is most precious to the church in the sight of God.
As God’s people, in order to grow up into maturity, we must always be willing to examine and bring our many traditions in to conformity with the Word of God. The reformation has brought us a long way in the right direction, but the men of that generation we prevented by death from telling the whole story. It is the responsibility of this generation to continue the work and continue to ensure that the body grows in its maturity.
Perhaps one of the best ways for us to get thinking about our own attitude toward communion is to compare it with what is often referred to as “Baptistic Theology”.
In baptistic thinking, for example, a child of believing parents starts “outside” the church and makes their way “inside” when they can successfully demonstrate their understanding and acceptance of the gospel. That profession – when met to the satisfaction of the church – opens the way for baptism. In Covenantal thinking, a child of believing parents is placed inside the Covenantal family through baptism and is considered “inside” the church until they demonstrate by their unbelief that they are “outside”. For reformed churches, baptism is a sign and seal of their inclusion in the Covenant in the same way that circumcision marked the old Covenant children (cf. Gal 3:27)
The baptistic thinking stresses individualism, an “every man for himself” approach whilst reformed thinking stresses the covenantal responsibility and the promises regarding the family (cf. Jer 32:39; Ez 37:25; Acts 2:39). One says, “Show your faithfulness and we will baptise you into Christ”, the other says, “You have been baptised into Christ, now show yourself faithful to all that that baptism represents.”
This same thinking flows into communion and it is here that the water can get really muddy. Because baptism for the Baptist is a way of expressing your individualistic faith, your way of saying “I believe”, it’s not necessary in order to take the Covenantal meal – Communion. In reformed thinking, because baptism is Covenantal, that is, it brings you into the body of Christ, it is necessary in order to come to the table.
Enter the contradiction: if I take my 18 month old daughter to the Baptist church she will be welcomed at the Covenantal meal, but, because she cant express her faith to the satisfaction of the church, she will not be welcome to participate in the Covenantal sign – baptism. On the other hand, if I take her to a Reformed church, she will be warmly welcomed at the Covenantal font, but, because she cant express her faith to the satisfaction of the church, she will not be welcome at the table. Do you see the problem?
One church says you can come to the table, even though you haven’t washed your hands, the other church says you can wash your hands but we won’t let you come to the table and eat! One says, you’re welcome to participate in the Covenantal seal but not the sign. The other says you are welcome to embrace the sign but not the seal!
The Reformed church sees baptism “Convenantally” but Communion is a thing based on an individual assessment by some hard to define criteria. How much “understanding” is enough and who sets the bar?. The baptistic thinking sees New Covenant Communion as an open table but baptism as requiring a certain, hard to define, level of understanding. Again, how much “understanding” is enough and who sets the bar?
The result of this Covenantal Confusion is two-fold. First, it represents a contradiction in our thinking. If God welcomes children to the font, why do we think He would object to them joining Him at the table. If they have been baptised into Christ, why can they not eat with Him? If its OK for children to have the promises trickle down their forehead, why can’t those same promises roll over the gums? Since there is no contradiction in God, we have some more work to do in this area. If it can be shown that contradictions have crept into our thinking, then it suggests we have strayed from the perfection of the gospel. It’s not something to panic about, but it is something to work on.
The second problem is almost as bad as the first. Contradictions have consequences. Picture this all too common scenario – at least in my experience it is common.
You’re in a Baptist church, you’re seven years old and enjoying the table meals with all of your brothers and sisters in Christ. Your older brother has just been baptised as a sign that he loves Jesus and has put his faith in Christ for his salvation. You go up to your mum and dad and say, “I love Jesus, I want to be baptised”. “No” comes the reply from the parent (or the Minister), “Maybe when you’re older. Let’s just wait and see.” So, get this. You have been told that baptism is for people who love Jesus. You love Jesus and you want to obey Him. But you are told, “No”. What has just been taught? You have just been taught to doubt.
I have seen this so many times. In effect, the child begins to wonder if he really does believe. “I thought I loved Jesus, I thought I believed, but maybe I don’t, otherwise the minister would baptise me”. What then often happens is that, as the child becomes a teenager, his parents start to suggest baptism and the child starts to say no. And then the parents come to me in a panic, “I don’t think my Johnny believes any more…” Really? I wonder why. (Interesting that they say, “any more”. If they did believe and you knew it, why did you keep them from the font?)
The same principle applies to Communion in Reformed circles with the same outcomes. Often, the teaching is unconscious and all that the little child – now grown up – knows is that he lives in a constant state of doubt about God’s love for him and the reality of his salvation. He thought he loved Jesus. Yes, his love for Jesus was growing. But when it came to meal time with Jesus, he was kept away from the table – just in case Jesus smote him for not “doing it” right. And so, the table becomes a thing indifferent or else outright rejected later on.
Now I am aware that no parent would consciously want to teach their child to doubt, but there you have it. The unwritten assumption here is that Jesus is more likely to “smote the little children” than He is to bless them, teach them and nurture their growing understanding. And so Jesus remains an unpredictable stranger, rather than a rock that we can lean on. Lets face it, if we had been kept away from the shadow – our own dinner tables – until we understood everything that was going on at meal time, we would all be dead.
There is a way through the mud and it is simple. There is a most glorious way to clear up the contradiction and it is liberating.
G Wah says
I want to thank you for this clear and challenging article. You’ve shed light on 2 topics (baptism and communion) whose real meanings and practices have been to me like trying to see something clearly whilst walking around in a fog.