Some seminary friends and I were talking the other day about ordination. And, in that first sentence, I just eliminated the interest of many people. Not only was it a seminary conversation, but it was a seminary conversation about ordination. Why anyone outside of seminary should be interested in that is beyond me. And that’s ok. Seminary breeds strange, esoteric thoughts sometimes. I want to write about them. You don’t necessarily have to read them. I’m not even going to bother to try and convince you that something good will come at the end. If you’re not interested in seminary or ordination now, this post won’t make you care about it. Go do something fun with your 12 minutes.
Anyway, we got to talking about what exceptions we were likely to take to the Westminster Standards. In the PCA, you have to say where you disagree with the Standards. For the most part, the Standards are an extremely reliable, well-written, and accurate systematic statement of true, Biblical theology. However, we also recognize that it is a non-inspired document, and therefore subject to scrutiny. For example, most ordained men in the PCA think that the Standard’s statements on Sabbath-keeping are too stringent (basically, they say that you can’t do anything fun, because the Sabbath is a solemn day). So the other guys in presbytery expect you to say that you disagree with something in the Standards. If you say that you have no differences with the Standards, it’s only proof that you’ve not read them closely.
One exception that is rising in popularity is paedo-communion, which is believing that you can give communion to children before they are accepted as church members. Someone told me once that it was the 2nd most-cited exception, behind the aforementioned sabbath exception. This surprised me, but it could be true. At the same time, it’s a rather dicey exception to take now-a-days. Paedo-communion has largely been associated with the Auburn Avenue/Federal Vision movement. To take this exception opens you to a lot of scrutiny, as many within the PCA believe that FV is a direct attack against the purity of the Gospel.
I don’t know all about that. I really don’t. I’ve been in seminary for 3 years now, and I have very little idea what the heck the FV is all about. And I don’t think it’s just me. So far as I can tell, a big part of the problem is that every critical assessment of FV that I’ve ever seen has been attacked by FV proponents, stating that the critic has completely misunderstood FV. And that might be the case. I’m not going to try to tell you that Guy Waters or Ligon Duncan has a perfect understanding of FV. But how is it that EVERY outside assessment has missed the point? Really — how many theological doctors does it take to rightly discern the thought of these guys? Maybe it’s just me being cynical, but I’m far more inclined to conclude that there is something hazy either in the thinking or the writing of the proponents, which is the major cause of the din. Yet I’ll be quick to say again that I haven’t taken the time to read up on all this myself, nor do I plan to (unless presbytery tells me to). I’d really rather spend my time learning about Islam or getting to know my agnostic/atheistic neighbors or praying for my friends than studying an esoteric theological controversy that makes sense to .002% of the world.
So why am I writing this? Well, none of my friends are FV proponents. Most of them feel similarly to me, that the whole thing makes no sense in the first place. But some of my friends were saying that they still don’t understand the traditional arguments against the practice of paedo-communion. After all, if children are members of the covenant community, as we Presbyterians readily affirm, why would we hold back the elements and means of grace from them? If we were to use Paul’s instruction about “each man discerning his heart” before he partakes, then we could never admit a mentally-retarded person to the table.
I got to thinking and wondering and asking myself why I disagree with paedo-communion. I found myself developing a reasoning that I hadn’t heard articulated before, and one that got me rather excited. So I thought I’d write it down here so that I wouldn’t forget.
To me, the big problem with paedo-communion has to do with the charge upon the elders of the church to maintain the purity of the sacraments. We refer to this in the Presbyterian church as the “fencing of the table.” The minister invites all those who trust in Christ to come to the table and commune with God and receive the blessing of His body broken and blood poured. He also warns those that refuse His Lordship to not take the elements in vain, lest they take condemnation upon themselves (again, echoing the warning from Paul). I should also back up and re-iterate that the sacraments are instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church for the encouragement and empowering of the People of God. This is why you don’t just baptize someone, but you baptize them in a local church and into a covenant community of faith. This is why you don’t just take any bread and wine at any time and call it communion, but you partake as a community. The elders, as the under-shepherds of the church, are uniquely tasked with maintaining the purity of the sacraments and ensuring the spiritual health of the congregants such that they do not take the elements in vain.
What happens in most cases with paedo-communion is that the fathers in the family are tasked with the responsibility of maintaining the purity of the elements for their family. Instead of waiting for the elders to receive the child as an examined and recognized adult member of the community of faith, the father takes the role of ensuring that his child is ready to receive communion. And this is a huge mistake. As I stated a while back, complementarianism and Biblical male-headship does NOT mean that fathers are the same as elders in the local church. It is the responsibility of a father (and mother) to entrust that their child is raised up in the fear and love of the Lord. And it is the responsibility of the church to support them in that work. That does not mean that the father suddenly becomes the de-facto elder for that nuclear family.