The church I'm part of are discussing issues around admitting children to communion at the moment. Unconnected to that, a friend asked me what the Bible said about it, so I spent a bit of time and came up with the following. I was trying to write a fairly balanced piece, but it didn't come out that way because all the arguments seemed to go in one direction. Or maybe two directions, but more of that later...
Obviously, there isn't any communion in the Old Testament, but there are still some relevant passages, because Communion is an upgraded version of a couple of OT ceremonies – the passover and the sacrificial meal.
In Exodus 12, the original passover was done by households, and children were very much included (e.g. v26). In fact, it's particularly appropriate for children to join in as the lamb dies in place of the firstborn son.
The same is implicit in the command to celebrate the Passover every year in Numbers 9 and Deuteronomy 16. Certainly, Jewish Passover liturgy had important roles for the children (filled by the youngest adult if no children were present).
The Sacrificial Meal
The Passover isn't the only sacrifice where the meat is eaten. There are short regulations in Leviticus, but we see it worked out in 1 Samuel 1:4ff, where Elkanah makes a sacrifice at the Tabernacle as the head of the household, and shares the meat with the priests and with his family, including the children. It's fairly clear from the passage that Elkanah's actions are seen as normal.
It's clear that in the Old Testament, the meals which were later upgraded to communion included children as a normal part of them. The obvious question is “Why should a child in the New Covenant people of God be worse off that one under the Old Covenant in respect of sharing in the commemoration meal?” Or to continue the analogy of an upgrade, this was a key feature in previous versions of the product - why should the Jesus upgrade do away with it?
There's nothing obvious in the gospels about children and communion, as the Lord's Supper is the only obvious communion meal, and there were (probably) no children present.
However, there are a few other passages which can help.
“Let the children come to me”
In Matthew 18 & 19, there are a series of episodes involving Jesus and children. Jesus says that we need to become like little children 18v3, that we should not despise (i.e. neglect) them 18v10, that he blesses them when the disciples would send them away 19v14. It is clear from this that even “little children” can believe in Jesus and that he seeks to include them.
There isn't a direct link to communion here, as it's not really in view in the passage, but it's clear that some people want to exclude children, and Jesus wants to include them. I think at the least this passage should make us want to have a bias towards inclusion.
The Woman with Bleeding
Another helpful passage is the story of the woman with bleeding in Mark 5:25-34. We are told that her faith “saves” her v34 (though some translations hide it, the word is clearly “saved” not “healed”). And yet her saving faith doesn't seem to be very good at theology – it's much more of a kind of superstition that if she touches Jesus' clothes then she will be healed. It's clear that what matters is that it's faith in Jesus, not whether the faith is intellectual or superstitious.
One obvious consequence of this is that it is appropriate for adults with special needs to receive communion if they want to – what matters is whether they trust Jesus, not how intellectual that trust is.
Feeding of the 5,000
In John 6, Jesus sees the feeding of the 5,000 as anticipating communion (v1-14, v53-58). And yet we read that there were children present and eating there as well (e.g. Matt 14:21).
Communion is something that seems to be celebrated by the church as a whole, especially when meeting in people's homes (e.g. Acts 2:42, 46). It is clear that whole households were sometimes baptised (e.g. Acts 16:33), and there is no evidence that baptised children were excluded from communion. Sunday School wasn't invented for a good few centuries!
There's a clear link made in the epistles between baptism, union with Christ and being members of the body of Christ (Rom 6:3-4, 1 Cor 12:13).
There's also a clear link between being part of the body of Christ and sharing in communion (1 Cor 10:16-17).
It seems fairly clear that the expectation is that people who are baptised are part of the (visible) church, and that members of the visible church share in communion to show their unity with one another. The obvious conclusion is that all people who are baptised should receive communion.
To my mind, the most persuasive argument in the whole debate comes out here, and goes something like this. "My 9 year old clearly believes and trusts in Jesus. She has been baptised. Is she a member of Christ's body? (Answer has to be "yes"). Then why can't she receive communion?"
1 Cor 11:27-32
This is the only passage I can find from which anyone argues that baptised children should not receive communion. It says that people should examine themselves before eating the bread and drinking of the cup, and that those who don't bring judgement on themselves.
It clearly means something important. The context was that the church in Corinth was meeting together after work. Some people (maybe the rich who came from the golf course or equivalent) were getting there early and eating a lot; others were arriving late (maybe with tougher and lower-paid jobs) and folk weren't being considerate to each other (e.g. v20-21). Recognising the body of Christ in this context means being willing to inconvenience ourselves for the sake of other Christians.
This passage can't mean that someone needs a certain level of intellectual ability before they receive communion, because the body of Christ includes all different sorts of people, even the woman with bleeding and even folk who lack that level of intellectual ability. We don't give an IQ test before we admit folk to communion! What matters is the object of our faith – am I really trusting / loving Jesus, and whether that shows itself in love for others. Do I love Jesus? Do I love others? If someone can ask and answer those questions, then these verses shouldn't stop them receiving communion.
If anything, this passage cuts the other way. Do we recognise that children who believe in Jesus are part of the body of Christ? What does v29 mean in the light of your answer?
There are a few other Biblical arguments against children receiving communion (e.g. needing children's own profession of faith rather than that of parents), but they are all actually arguments against children being baptised, and stop applying long before children reach the age at which confirmation is normal. I've seen an 8-year old bring her whole family along to church because she came to trust in Jesus for herself through reading a Bible she was given.
In any case, as Anglicans, we accept that even little children can have faith, and we accept that parents can make promises on behalf of their children. I was hoping to write a balanced piece, but having done the work it seems to me that there are no substantive Biblical arguments against children receiving communion, especially those who profess faith for themselves.
Disagree? Think I've missed something important? Feel free to comment below!