The most important piece of New Testament evidence that bears upon the question of paedocommunion is undeniably 1 Corinthians 11:17–34. In this passage, the apostle Paul speaks at length about the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, its institution by Christ, and the manner in which those who sacramentally partake of Christ are to come to the Table of the Lord. It is no exaggeration to say that this is the most extensive and comprehensive New Testament passage on the subject of the Lord’s Supper. It is also the most compelling piece of testimony that addresses the issue of the proper recipients of the sacrament. As we noted in our introduction to a survey of the New Testament evidence on the subject of the Lord’s Supper, most of the pertinent passages refer either to the institution of the Lord’s Supper or its practice in the new covenant community. None of them, with the possible exception of John 6, a passage we considered in a previous article, has clear implications for determining who may be admitted to the Lord’s Table.
In comparison to the other New Testament evidence, therefore, 1 Corinthians 11:17–34 belongs in a category of its own. We have previously noted that, since the Lord’s Supper is a sacrament of the new covenant that has no exact analogy in the old covenant, the teaching of the Scriptures of the new covenant must determine how it is administered and received. Because the Scriptures of the new covenant in Christ have priority in our determination of the practice of the new covenant community, this passage is of unparalleled importance for answering the question regarding the proper recipients of the Lord’s Supper.
Before we consider the teaching of 1 Corinthians 11:17–34 in detail, it will be helpful to begin with a brief summary of the historic Reformed and more recent paedocommunionist interpretations of this passage. Though there is the danger that this will prejudice our treatment of the passage, acquaintance with these widely divergent interpretations of the passage will provide a context for and background to our exposition in a subsequent article. We will begin with a summary of the historic Reformed reading of the passage, and then offer a summary of a more recent paedocommunionist reading.
The Historic Reformed Interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11:17–34
In the traditional understanding of this passage in the Reformed churches, the apostle Paul’s instructions regarding what it means to participate in the sacrament in an “unworthy” manner are viewed as normative for all members of the new covenant community. Though the occasion for Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 11:17–34 is specific, the apostle seizes upon this occasion to set forth general guidelines or principles for the way any member of the church should partake sacramentally of the body and blood of the Lord. In the Corinthian church, some of the wealthier members were enjoying a private meal in connection with the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, but they excluded others from this meal who remained hungry (v. 21). In response to this problem, Paul reminds the Corinthians of the institution of the Lord’s Supper and what it requires of all who would partake in a worthy manner of the Lord’s body and blood. In his positive instructions regarding the manner in which the sacrament is to be received, he uses language that is general or universal in its implications. For example, in verse 27 he speaks of “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup ….” In verse 28, he enjoins all believers with the language, “let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” And again in verse 29, he says, “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.” This language clearly shows that Paul’s instructions regarding participation in the sacrament are intended to apply in a general way to all believers whenever they commune with Christ and each other by means of the sacrament.
In his general description of the proper manner in which the Supper is to be celebrated, the apostle Paul begins with an appeal to the Lord’s instructions that were issued at the time of the institution of the Lord’s Supper. All who partake of the elements of bread and wine must do so “in remembrance” of Christ (vv. 24–25). When the sacrament is received in remembrance of Christ, believers are said thereby “to proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (v. 26). According to the historic interpretation of these instructions, participation in the sacrament requires the kind of faith that is capable of remembering and proclaiming Christ’s death. The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper may not be received in a “witless” or uninformed manner by its recipients. It obliges those who participate to do so in the way of a believing appropriation of the gospel promise and teaching regarding Christ’s sacrificial death upon the cross for his people. The traditional practice of the Reformed churches, which insists that the recipients of the sacrament confirm publicly the presence of the kind of faith that can meaningfully remember and proclaim Christ’s death, is simply an application of what is required by these words of institution.
The most important features of the traditional interpretation of this passage, however, are based upon the instructions of verses 27–29. In these verses, the apostle Paul begins by insisting that whoever participates in the Lord’s Supper is obliged to do so only after having engaged in a form of “self-examination.” Before believers receive the sacrament, they should examine themselves in the sense of “testing” whether their faith and conduct is in accord with their profession (v. 26). Though this requirement of selfexamination has been implemented in various ways throughout the history of the Reformed churches, it is generally understood to require that believers test themselves in terms of the normal requirements of a Christian profession.
After this reminder of the need for self-examination, the apostle Paul adds that all who partake of the sacrament must do so only as they properly “discern” the body of Christ (v. 29). Such discernment of the body of Christ includes an understanding of His atoning sacrifice, and the implications of this sacrifice for the conduct of believers in relation to Christ and others. In the historic Reformed interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11, these requirements for a proper reception of the sacrament provide a sufficient warrant for the insistence that all who come to the Lord’s Supper do so as “professing members” of the church who are in good standing. The seriousness of these requirements is only further confirmed by Paul’s teaching that God’s judgment was resting upon many believers in Corinth who were guilty of ignoring them (vv. 29–32).
Accordingly, when the Reformed confessions address the subject of what is required to participate in the Lord’s Supper, they interpret Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians to mean that believers must come to the Table in the way of faith. For example, the Belgic Confession echoes the instructions of 1 Corinthians 11:17–34 in Article 25, which treats the holy Supper of our Lord Jesus Christ: “we receive this sacrament in the assembly of the people of God, with humility and reverence, keeping up among us a holy remembrance of the faith and of the Christian religion. Therefore no one ought to come to the table without having previously rightly examined himself, lest by eating of this bread and drinking of this cup he eat and drink judgment to himself.”
Similar appeals to 1 Corinthians 11:17–34 are found in the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 30, and the Westminster Larger Catechism, Question and Answer 177. This understanding of 1 Corinthians 11:17–34, which is expressed in the confessional symbols of the Reformed churches, underlies the practice of requiring a public confirmation of faith prior to the admission of children to the Table of the Lord.
A Recent “Paedocommunion” Interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11:17–34
In spite of the long-standing consensus of the Reformed churches regarding the interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11:17–34, recent advocates of paedocommunion have vigorously challenged it. According to a recent paedocommunionist interpretation of this passage, the refusal to admit the children of the covenant to the Lord’s Table fails to appreciate the real burden of the apostle Paul’s argument in this passage. On a paedocommunionist interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11:17–34, there are several significant errors in the traditional reading. The cumulative effect of these errors actually turns the tables on the older view.
Whereas this passage has been read traditionally to exclude nonprofessing members of the covenant community from admission to the Table, a careful reading of the passage will show that it commends the admission of all the members of the church, young and old alike. Indeed, the traditional restriction upon the participation of young children in the sacrament wrongly divides different segments of the covenant community (in this case, professing and non-professing members) in a manner that is reminiscent of the unwarranted divisions in the Corinthian church.
Paul’s strong rebuke of the Corinthian practice, which profaned the Table of the Lord as an expression of the unity of the body of Christ, may apply accordingly to the traditional practice of the churches, which excludes some members of the community from full participation in Christ.
In the paedocommunionist reading of 1 Corinthians 11:17–34, a great deal of emphasis is placed upon the particular occasion that prompted Paul’s teaching about the Lord’s Supper in this passage. The problem Paul addresses in this passage is not one of “orthodoxy” or right doctrine but of “orthopraxis” or proper conduct. The apostle does not rebuke the Corinthians for admitting “unworthy” participants to the Table of the Lord. Rather, he rebukes them for a practice that represented an ungodly pride and factionalism among segments of the congregation in Corinth. Some members of the congregation were enjoying their own private meals in conjunction with the sacrament, and in so doing humiliated poorer members of the congregation who were excluded from participation with them.
The offense that was present in the Corinthian congregation was one of factionalism or divisiveness within the one body of Christ. In the context of their celebration of the sacrament of communion, which represents the participation of all believers in Christ and their spiritual unity with each other, the Corinthians had turned the sacrament into an occasion for ungodly divisions among segments of the congregation. The sinful practice of the Corinthian church was an affront to the gospel of the union and communion of the whole covenant community, with all of its members, in the one body of Christ, which the sacrament of communion so powerfully attests. If we keep this occasion in mind, it will have a significant impact upon our reading of the passage.
In addition to an emphasis upon the particular occasion for Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 11:17–34, a paedocommunionist reading of the passage also maintains that the language of “remembrance” and “proclamation” in verses 24–26 need not exclude younger children of the covenant community. These terms do not describe a participation in the sacrament that requires an intellectual or knowledgeable apprehension of the gospel of Christ’s sacrifice of atonement on behalf of His people, as advocates of the traditional view claim.
The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is itself an “act of remembrance” and a “visible proclamation” of the gospel of Christ’s sacrifice upon the cross. Just as young children of believing parents participated in Old Testament rites of remembrance, though their understanding of the meaning of these rites was negligible or quite limited, so the young children of believing parents today may participate in the sacrament of the Lord’s Table as a rite of remembrance. According to advocates of paedocommunion, therefore, this language does not prevent even the youngest members of the covenant communion from participation in the sacrament.
Perhaps the most important leg in this paedocommunionist reading of 1 Corinthians 11:17–34:17–34, however, is its interpretation of the language of verses 27–29. Though these verses have been interpreted historically to exclude young children from participation in the sacrament, their teaching actually opposes a practice that would exclude them (or any other segment) of the covenant community from reception at the Lord’s Table. The Corinthians were “improperly” eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ, because they were guilty of a failure to “examine” themselves in terms of their membership in the body of Christ, the church. By their divisive practice, which excluded some from participating in their “private feasts,” they failed to identify correctly who belonged to the community of Christ’s people.
When Paul speaks of the need to “discern the body” in verse 29, he has in mind the obligation to discern or properly recognize all who are members of the community of the church. The “body” to which Paul refers is not the body of Christ that was offered in sacrifice for the sins of His people, but the one church to whom all believers and their children belong. Paul’s concern is ecclesiological rather than soteriological; he is interested in a proper identification of who belongs to the body of the church, not a kind of informed understanding of the nature of Christ’s sacrifice as the basis for the forgiveness of sins. Because the Corinthians’ practice sinfully fractured the unity of the church, it violated the body of Christ and exhibited a failure to eat and drink in a worthy manner.
On this paedocommunionist interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11:17–34, the implications for the practice of paedocommunion are clear and startling. Nothing in the passage prevents young children from being admitted to the Table. Simply by their participation in the sacrament, children are able to remember and proclaim the death of Christ. They are also capable of being admitted to the Table as those who have properly examined themselves and discerned the body of the church (in the sense of knowing that they belong to the household of faith)
As we consider 1 Corinthians 11:17–34 in a subsequent article or articles, we shall have to keep these two divergent interpretations before us. Does this passage provide compelling support for the traditional practice of the churches, which insists upon a public profession of faith prior to the admission of believers to the Table of the Lord? Or does the more recent paedocommunionist reading of this passage provide a more likely interpretation of it? The historic and more recent paedocommunionist interpretations of this passage cannot both be true. It is actually rather remarkable how opposed they are. The one appeals to this passage to oppose the idea that young children, who have not professed the Christian faith, should be admitted to the Table of the Lord. The other appeals to this passage in order to prove that young children must be admitted to the sacrament. The importance of this passage and the divergence of interpretation regarding it, demand that we give it our most careful attention.
Dr. Cornelis Venema is the President of Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana. He is also a contributing editor to The Outlook.