At several points throughout our treatment of the biblical evidence that is relevant to the question of paedocommunion, we have noted that 1 Corinthians 11:17–34 is the most important passage to consider. In the historic confessions of the Reformed churches, this passage is often adduced to prove that participation in the Lord’s Supper requires the presence of faith on the part of its recipients. Since it is the only biblical passage that directly treats the issue of what is required for a proper or worthy reception of Christ by means of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, it has obvious significance for the question of paedocommunion. The historic view and practice of the Reformed churches, which insists upon a public profession of faith on the part of children of believing parents before they are admitted to the Table of the Lord, represents an application of the themes of this passage. For advocates of paedocommunion, therefore, this passage requires special attention, as it presents an apparently insurmountable obstacle to their insistence that covenant children be admitted to the sacrament without a prior attestation of their faith.
1 Corinthians 10:16–17
Before we proceed to an exposition of this passage, however, we need to return for a moment to a passage that was briefly discussed in an earlier article in this series. This passage is 1 Corinthians 10:16–17. We need to consider this passage, since it is cited by some advocates of paedocommunion in support of the practice of admitting covenant children to the Table of the Lord. It is also regarded as a passage that sets a context and framework for the apostle Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 11:17–34, which takes up again the subject of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
In the judgment of some advocates of paedocommunion, 1 Corinthians 10:16–17 is a passage of particular significance, since it establishes a basic premise that undergirds the argument from covenant membership on the part of children to their reception at the Lord’s Table. That premise is that the Lord’s Supper represents in a most powerful way the unity and fellowship of the whole body of Christ, including all of its members. Speaking of the Lord’s Supper, the apostle Paul declares: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” In this passage, Paul sets forth a theme that runs like a thread throughout 1 Corinthians, the theme of the unity of Christ’s body and the full participation in him of all members of the covenant community. The Lord’s Supper, as this passage clearly shows, is a beautiful expression of the oneness of the body of Christ and the fellowship that obtains between all members of the church. This theme constitutes the background to Paul’s sobering rebuke to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 11, where the apostle points out how their divisiveness in the way they celebrated the Lord’s Supper was a sin against Christ’s body, the church. For this reason, the judgment of the Lord had fallen upon some of them, just as the Lord’s judgment fell upon the disobedient Israelites in the days of Moses (1 Cor. 10:6–10).
The principle that the Lord’s Supper belongs to and expresses the oneness of the body of Christ, which is summarized in 1 Corinthians 10:16–17, is not an isolated theme in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Already in 1 Corinthians 7:14, Paul has noted that the children of believers are “holy.” Furthermore, at the outset of 1 Corinthians 10, Paul describes how believers of the old covenant were “all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea,” “ate the same spiritual food, and drank the same spiritual drink,” and “drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ” (vv. 2–4). This description not only provides an Old Testament precedent for all members of the covenant community, including the children, having a part in Christ, but it also constitutes the setting for Paul’s emphasis upon the “fellowship” or “koinonia” that all members of the church have in Christ. The implications of this for the question of paedocommunion is clear, according to some paedocommunionists. Any participation in Christ by means of the Lord’s Supper that inappropriately divides the congregation into segments (rich and poor, adults and children), and excludes some from full participation in the body of Christ, falls under the apostle’s admonition of the Corinthians. The practice of excluding covenant children from participation in the Lord’s Supper strikes at the heart of what the sacrament means for the unity of Christ’s body.
Though this appeal to 1 Corinthians 10:16–17 appears to support the paedocommunion case, I am not convinced that it is sufficient by itself to establish the paedocommunion position. It is true that the Lord’s Supper is a powerful witness to the unity of the church. The participation of believers in Christ, which the sacrament represents, has inescapable implications for the unity between all who are members of the body of Christ, the church. However, it seems rather premature to argue from the theme enunciated in 1 Corinthians 10:16–17 to the claim that all covenant children should be admitted to the Lord’s Table, lest the oneness of the body of the church be compromised. After all, the paedocommunionist appeal to this passage in support of the admission of such children can only be sustained, if the particular teaching of 1 Corinthians 11:17–34 does not stand in opposition to it. If 1 Corinthians 11 teaches what the Reformed churches historically have understood it to teach, then the paedocommunionist appeal to 1 Corinthians 10:16–17 will prove to be premature and unwarranted. No matter how strongly 1 Corinthians 10:16–17 associates the Lord’s Supper with the theme of the oneness of Christ’s body, it still remains to be seen whether this demands the admission of all covenant children to the Table. Since 1 Corinthians 11:17–34 is a passage in which the apostle Paul expressly addresses what is required for participation in the sacrament, it must retain its unique status as the single most decisive passage for determining whether such children should be admitted to the Lord’s Table.
However, there are two additional considerations that should be borne in mind in response to a paedocommunionist argument from the principle set forth in 1 Corinthians 10:16–17. First, this passage does not warrant the inference that the membership of children in the covenant community is jeopardized, should the privilege of being admitted to the Lord’s Table be withheld from them for a period of time. It is instructive that the participation in Christ of which the apostle Paul speaks at the outset of 1 Corinthians 10, was inclusive of non-circumcised persons (and even animals!) who accompanied the children of Israel during their wilderness wanderings. The meals that were eaten during this period of history did not require circumcision, and were not governed by the Deuteronomic stipulations that applied to the annual Passover meal. To appeal to these Old Testament observances, which the apostle Paul mentions at the beginning of 1 Corinthians 10, as precedents for who should share the new covenant meal, the Lord’s Supper, seems faulty for several reasons, not the least of which is that it proves too much. And second, the paedocommunionist representation of the historic Reformed position is needlessly prejudicial at this point. Representing the historic Reformed practice as though it “cut off” the children of believers from participation in Christ and the covenant community may seem to have merit, but it is a kind of “straw man” argument. Historic Reformed practice acknowledges that the children of believing parents are members of the covenant community and of Christ. This practice also acknowledges that such children should come to the Lord’s Supper in order to enjoy the nourishment in Christ that this sacramental feast provides. But it insists that the way believers come to the Table is stipulated in Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 11:17–34.
Whether 1 Corinthians 10:16–17 has the implications for the subject of paedocommunion that is sometimes alleged, therefore, depends finally upon how 1 Corinthians 11:17–34 is interpreted. It is time, therefore, that we take up directly this passage and consider it in some detail.
1 Corinthians 11:17–34
In our treatment of this passage, we will follow an outline that has often been recognized by previous interpreters. The passage nicely divides into four sections: verses 17–22, which identify the problem in Corinth that characterized the church’s celebrations of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper; verses 23–26, which contain the apostle Paul’s summary of the Lord’s institution of the Lord’s Supper; verses 27–32, which provide instructions on the way recipients of the sacrament ought to receive the body and blood of the Lord, lest they participate in an “unworthy” manner; and verses 33–34, which return to the original problem that Paul is addressing in the Corinthian church and offer instruction on how the Corinthians should wait for each other when they come together to eat, lest they continue to experience the Lord’s judgment upon them. Since the third of these four sections contains instructions that are most relevant to the question of the proper recipients of the sacrament, we will give it more extensive treatment.
The Occasion for Paul’s Instructions (vv. 17–22)
The particular occasion for Paul’s instructions regarding the Lord’s Supper in this passage is not difficult to identify. The apostle begins by noting that in the following instructions he does not intend to “commend” the Corinthians (v. 17). Rather, he intends to issue a strong rebuke to them because, in their celebration of the Lord’s Supper, they were not following the tradition that they had been taught regarding the meaning of the sacrament. When the Corinthians came together in order to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, there were “divisions” and “factions” among them (vv. 18-19). Though Paul acknowledges that he knows this only upon the basis of oral reports, he regards these reports to be accurate and judges, accordingly, that their coming together was “not for the better but for the worse” (v. 17). He also identifies the source of these divisions as “evil men,” and observes that God will use them nonetheless to achieve his good purpose. As he describes this purpose, “there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized” (v. 19).
Before considering the apostle Paul’s description of the way this divisiveness in the Corinthian church was expressing itself, it is important to observe that the divisions that he identifies in this passage are different than the divisions that he mentioned earlier in his letter. Though the apostle uses the same word (“schism”) in this passage as he used earlier in 1 Corinthians 1:10, the earlier divisions that he identifies in the Corinthian church displayed several characteristics that are absent from his description in 1 Corinthians 11. In his previous description of divisions in the Corinthian church, the apostle spoke of a party spirit, which gave birth to “quarrelsomeness” and “jealousy” within the congregation (1:11; 3:3-4). Nothing is said about such quarrelsomeness and jealousy in 1 Corinthians 11.
Furthermore, the divisions noted earlier in his letter were between at least four parties, each of whom favored one apostle, or even Christ himself, over the others. The schism in the Corinthian church involved a spirit of opposition to the apostle Paul on the part of some members, and was rooted in the differing allegiances of the church’s members to their spiritual overseers. Unlike the divisions that Paul is describing in 1 Corinthians 11, the divisions that Paul characterizes in the earlier portion of his letter were not of a sociological nature (between rich and poor), and did not express themselves in the context of the gathering of the covenant community for the purpose of worship and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Though there may be a broad connection between these distinct forms of factionalism in the Corinthian church, the particular focus of the apostle’s comments in 1 Corinthians 11 is different than in the earlier portion of his letter.
In his explicit description of the divisions he has in mind in this passage, the apostle notes that they were exhibited in the context of the church’s “coming together” in order to participate in the Lord’s Supper.
When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not. (Vv. 20–22)
The language of the apostle in these verses is sharp and severe. When the Corinthians come together for the purpose, among other things, of participating in the Lord’s Supper, there are divisions among them. These divisions are evident in that some members proceeded to eat and enjoy “his own meal,” ignoring other members who were poor and remained hungry. The conduct of some of the Corinthians amounted to a reprehensible dividing of the one body of Christ, since some members enjoyed a personal feast in the presence of other members with whom they did not share their plenty. Since this divisive and unseemly conduct occurred within a setting that included the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, the apostle goes so far as to say to these members that their celebration of the sacrament was not an eating of Christ at all.
Because their divisiveness struck at the very heart of the communion or participation of all members of the body in Christ, which is represented so powerfully in the sharing of the sacramental meal, it falls under the strongest condemnation of the apostle. We should not conclude from this that the apostle is condemning all members of the Corinthian congregation, or suggesting that the Lord’s Supper was not being celebrated by any of the Corinthian believers. The language Paul uses makes clear that he is speaking directly to those in the Corinthian congregation who were guilty of the kind of behavior he describes. These members are clearly distinguished from others who are presumably not at fault for the divisions that obtained in the Corinthian church at its gatherings for the celebration of the sacrament.
The significance of this occasion for the apostle Paul’s instructions to the Corinthian church in this passage remains to be seen. Advocates of paedocommunion tend to argue that this occasion limits the application of what the apostle says subsequently about the Lord’s Supper to those who may be guilty of the same conduct as some in the Corinthian church. They also appeal to this occasion for a particular understanding of what Paul goes on to say about a proper “discernment” of the Lord’s body. Because Paul is admonishing the Corinthian believers for an abusive practice that wrongly divided between different segments of the Lord’s body, some proponents of paedocommunion argue that the one over-riding imperative of this passage, which must govern any celebration of the Lord’s Supper, is: make no distinctions between members of the covenant community (whether between rich and poor, or between adults and children), lest the meaning of the sacrament as a Table of unity be undermined.
I do not have any objection to an emphasis upon the context for Paul’s teaching in this passage. Context is always of special importance to the interpretation of any Scriptural passage. What I object to in this case is the use of context to override the clear particulars of a passage. In my judgment, it is a premature and unwarranted use of this context to conclude that any restrictions upon participation in the sacrament violate the principle of the unity of the body of Christ. We will have to determine, when we treat the more relevant sections of this passage, whether this is so or not.
The Institution of the Lord’s Supper (vv. 23–26)
Immediately after the section that describes the abusive practice of some of the Corinthians in their celebration of the Lord’s Supper, the apostle Paul turns to the “tradition” regarding the sacrament that he received from the Lord himself. In this section, the apostle wants to remind the Corinthian church that the Lord’s Supper belongs to the Lord, and not the Corinthian believers. Their celebration of the Supper, accordingly, must be governed by the teaching of the Lord Himself and the terms set forth at the time of the sacrament’s institution.
In his summary of the institution of the Lord’s Supper, the apostle emphasizes especially the two purposes for which the sacrament was ordained: first, to “remember” Christ’s sacrificial death upon the cross; and second, to “proclaim” His death until he comes again.
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.
Whenever believers participate in the Lord’s Supper (“as often as you drink it”), they do so in obedience to the Lord’s command to remember Him and His sacrifice for His people. The bread that is eaten and the wine that is drunk signify the body and blood of Christ, and the new covenant that is based upon His sacrifice upon the cross. Furthermore, the act of partaking of the sacrament is a divinelyappointed means of proclaiming the death of Christ. The sacrament is a public declaration of Christ’s work, and fosters in believers the expectation of Christ’s return, even as He promised.
The usual interpretation of these words of institution is that they require an active and responsible participation on the part of recipients of the sacrament. Those who eat the body and drink the blood of Christ must do so, not in a witless or uninformed manner, but as believers whose remembrance and proclamation of Christ’s death requires the “mouth of faith.” However, in their handling of these words of institution, some paedocommunionists argue that we should translate the language, “do this in remembrance of me” (vv. 24–25) as “do this unto my remembrance.” In this view, the remembrance in question is not so much a subjective act on the part of the believer who receives the sacrament, but an objective act on the part of God (and the believing community) in which the sacrament’s observance is itself the memorial. In this connection, an appeal is made to the language of Leviticus 24:7 and the general Old Testament theme of “remembrance/memorial.” On analogy with the Old Testament usage of the language of “memorial” in connection with the appointed feasts (cf. Num. 10:10), the Lord’s Supper is itself an objective memorial/remembrance of Christ’s death.
When Christ commands those who partake of the Lord’s Supper to do so in remembrance of Him, therefore, he is not setting forth a requirement for participation in the sacrament but declaring its purpose. If this is the sense of the words of institution, then it is no longer permissible to appeal to the language of receiving the sacrament “in active remembrance” of Christ to exclude immature and nonprofessing members of the covenant community.
At the level of the grammar of the passage, the question this raises is whether “of me” in the original language of the text is an “objective” (“remembrance of me”) or “subjective” (“my remembrance”) genitive. Though it is possible to take it in the latter sense, as some paedocommunionists suggest, it is instructive that English translations of the text usually take it to be an “objective” genitive. Within the setting of Christ’s words of institution, and the imperative addressed to the recipient of the sacrament (“do this … ”), this seems to be the likeliest translation. To quote the common words employed in the administration of the sacrament, recipients of the sacrament are summoned to “take, eat/drink, remember and believe ….” The point of the Lord’s words of institution is that the participant in the sacrament is placed under the obligation to obey the Lord’s command, to act in a way that expresses an informed remembrance and believing proclamation of his death. In the historic understanding of the Reformed churches, a public profession of faith on the part of a covenant child is the ordinary means whereby the presence of that kind of faith is confirmed.
Since we have not yet treated the most important section of this passage (verses 27–29), we are not in a position to draw any firm conclusions regarding its implications for the subject of paedocommunion. All we may conclude at this point is that the apostle is addressing a particular problem in the Corinthian church’s celebration of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. The problem is that some members of the church were acting divisively in the context of their reception of the sacrament. Rather than sharing their food and drink with more needy members of the congregation, they were eating and drinking (to the point of drunkenness!) while others remained hungry and forgotten. In this context, the apostle chooses to address the subject of a proper reception of the sacrament. In order to provide a framework for his instruction, he begins by appealing to Christ’s words at the institution of the Supper. The Lord’s Supper is Christ’s, and it must be celebrated in accordance with Christ’s command.
So far as the question of paedocommunion is concerned, these words of institution seem to place the recipient of the sacrament under the obligation to partake in the way of an active faith, which is capable of remembering and proclaiming the sacrificial death of Christ. In the historic understanding of this language, it has typically been argued that this requires an attestation of faith on the part of those who are admitted to the Lord’s Table. Advocates of paedocommunion, however, argue that this is not a necessary inference that must be drawn from the language the apostle uses. Since the most decisive section of the passage remains to be considered, we will resist the temptation to draw any more definitive conclusions at this juncture.
Dr. Cornelis Venema is the President of Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana. He is also a contributing editor to The Outlook.