Let a person examine himself… (1 Cor. 11:28)

In the interest of preaching the Gospel in accord with the faith once delivered to the saints, I write of what I believe to be a serious matter: the communion of the young.
Since we must say that we never withhold the Sacrament from anyone based on our presumption of whether or not they have faith – because we cannot see another’s faith – faith, then, cannot be the reason we commune some, and the lack of faith cannot be the reason we withhold communion from others. We cannot,therefore, say that we do not commune children because they have no faith, as we know that this is categorically false since Jesus Himself says that we must have the faith of a child. Therefore we know that children do believe and have the Spirit of Christ, for no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Spirit. Moreover, we have the testimony of Scripture which attributes faith to many children and infants such as John the Baptist before he was born, and to king Josiah who was 8 years old when he became king of Judah and “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord” (2 Chr. 34:1-2). So also we know that children can and do have faith, and even live in their faith. Because they are included in those who are to be baptized, preached to, taught, and instructed in the way of the Lord we know that the Lord delights in them and desires that they be counted among His people.
So we cannot say that children do not have faith or are not yet truly members of the Church and so cannot commune just as we do not say that those who do not commune with us because we are not in fellowship with their churches do not have faith. Faith is never the issue since it cannot be seen or judged.
So what is the issue? Well, I believe a closer look at 1 Corinthians 10 & 11 will provide insight into this issue of whether young children should commune and what the implications are if they don’t.
The reason that is given as to why we do not give the Supper to young children is because St. Paul writes in 1 Cor. 11:27-29, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.” It is extrapolated from this that a child cannot examine him or herself and so should not receive the Sacrament (see Walther & Pieper).
And when asked, “What is this examination?” the answer given is either, “An examination to see if the child really believes that the bread is the body of Christ and that the wine is the blood of Christ,” or the answer given is, “The communicate must examine himself to see whether nor not he has unconfessed or outstanding sins that he or she has committed.” This last answer is based on a faulty reading of Matthew 5(23-24), when Jesus says, “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” The problem with this referring to the Lord’s Supper – for Lutherans – is that the Lord’s Supper is not our gift to the Father (such as Roman Catholicism teaches) but rather it is the Father’s gift to us, which is what John writes, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). The offering Jesus is speaking of is the offering of thanksgiving for the mercy of God, which speaks against us when we have not had mercy on one another.
But the chief argument for why we don’t commune young children is based on St. Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth; specifically, the verses mentioned above (1 Cor. 11:27-29), as proof that one must believe the bread is the body of Christ and the cup is the blood of Christ. But, let us take a closer look at 1 Corinthians and see what we see (get your Bible out).
In chapter 10, the apostle argues that because the cup that we bless is the blood of Christ and the bread that we break is the participation in the body of Christ then we who are many are one Body because we eat of the one bread (vss. 16-17). Then follows the apostle’s injunction that we who partake of Christ and so are united to Him, cannot participate also in the altar of demons (v. 21). This is the apostle’s warning against idolatry. It also shows that the unity of the congregation is found in the eating of the bread, which is Christ’s body.
Chapter 11, then, is the apostle’s admonition and rebuke that when they come together they do not do so as the Body, but as factions in rivalry with one another. In verses 17 – 22, St. Paul chastises the church in Corinth because when they come together as a church they are divided – not just arguing but they are actually eating what they believe to be the Lord’s Supper in envy, jealousy, and one-upmanship. They are divided in spirit. The rich ignore the poor and the factions are separating themselves from one another. Thus the apostle writes in reproof, “When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper that you eat” (v. 20). It is not the Lord’s Supper because they are not eating in unity but in disunity, which is contrary to what Paul wrote concerning this Holy Meal in chapter 10 (v. 17), that “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” The congregation (the Church) finds her unity in the bread that we eat together, which is the Body of Christ. But when the Corinthian congregation gathered, they gathered in opposition to one another and so were not celebrating the Lord’s Supper, which brings unity, but by their distinctions and sectarianism they were profaning His body and blood (11:27).
So, because they are not eating in unity but disunity, not in love but in scorn and envy, St. Paul asks the rhetorical question in v. 22, “Do you scorn the Church of God?” By their grotesque division and segregation of the rich and the poor – the have’s and have-not’s – they are sinning against the Body of Christ, the Church. Thus his question, “Do you scorn the Church of God?”
Then the apostle says, “What I received from the Lord I also passed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed, took bread…etc.” He reminds them what the Holy Supper is – the body and blood of Christ given and shed for them, and that when they eat and drink the Lord’s body and blood they are proclaiming His death, resurrection, and return. Thus the apostle writes, “As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you are proclaiming the Lord’s death until He comes in the future.” (Jesus can’t “come in the future” unless He is risen from the dead, thus the Supper proclaims Jesus’ death, resurrection, and return.)
Those who eat and drink the Supper of our Lord participate in the Body and Blood of Christ (10:16), and find their unity in the bread that we eat (10:17). When we eat, then, in disunity and strife with one another (not just disagreeing about things, but in hatred of one another) then we sin against (hate) the Body of Christ, which gathers to eat and drink the Lord’s Supper. We sin against the very ones with whom we are supposed to be in unity with.
Those who eat and drink in an unworthy manner (11:27) are those who eat and drink and yet believe that they are distinct – separated – from others who also eat and drink the Lord’s Supper, denying the unity of those who eat and drink. The apostle is not arguing for the Real Presence, but is presupposing it. In chapter 10 (v.16) the apostle presupposes that the bread is the body of Christ and the cup is the blood of Christ when he writes, “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 it is His body and blood, we who eat and drink of it are participating in His body and blood.
So also in chapter 11(17ff) the apostle is not concerned with the Real Presence; not because he is denying it or doesn’t think it important, but because it is a non-issue. Of course it is the body and blood of Christ, that’s what Jesus Himself calls it. Rather than arguing for the Real Presence, the apostle is concerned with sinning against the Church, the Body of Christ. If we sin against the Church, we eat and drink to our judgment, for the body and blood are given to the Church.
The apostle is saying that when we hate the Body of Christ, the Church, by ignoring her and treating her with contempt by honoring some and despising others (see also James 2:1-7), then we profane the body and blood that we eat, which is supposed to be our unity (10:17). If we eat of Jesus’ body and blood while scorning (hating) those to whom it is given, our brothers and sisters in the faith, then we profane His body and blood, eating and drinking to our judgment.
So, let a person examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup in a worthy manner. For whoever eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself (v. 28-29). The apostle is warning against and condemning sectarianism and favoritism. He is chastising the congregation in Corinth because they scorn one another, treating one another as though some were more important and others as less important. They are behaving towards one another with malice and envy, causing some to go hungry and others to get drunk. The whole language and approach of the apostle is towards the attitude the congregants have toward one another. St. Paul is rebuking them for being divided; chastising them because they are denying that they are unified by the very thing that Christ gave for unity – the body they eat and blood they drink.
When one scrons (despises/hates) the Body of Christ, when he does not discern that those with whom he eats and drinks are also the Body of Christ, the beloved of the Lord, heirs and co-heirs with Christ, then he eats and drinks judgment on himself. Therefore, discern the Body. That is, acknowledge with whom you are eating. Do not sin against the Church, the Body of Christ, by thinking they are separate from you, else you eat and drink to your judgment.
In summary, the context of St. Paul’s admonitions, corrections, and appeals in 1 Cor. 11, is in the corporate setting of the congregation coming together for what is supposed to be the Lord’s Supper. The context is not a doctrinal argument for the Real Presence, which seems to be assumed and used as proof that our unity is in the eating of the bread (10:17). Moreover, the examination of oneself has to do with acknowledging/knowing with whom he or she is eating and drinking and treating them accordingly. It doesn’t seem to be an examination of belief in the Real Presence (or even further off the mark, an examination of one’s sin and righteousness). So we eat with those with whom we have fellowship and are united, and we refrain from eating with those with whom we do not have fellowship.
Now we know that children are members of the Body of Christ. They are baptized with us into the one Body (Eph. 4:4-5), having put on Christ in Baptism (Gal. 3:27). The Word of salvation and promise of the Holy Spirit is for them also (Acts 2:39). Since they are members of the Body of Christ, they are heirs and co-heirs with Christ just as adults are. Moreover, since the Christ’s kingdom is built on the confession of His name (Matt. 16), we know that those who confess His name belong to Him.
So what do we do? How do we process all this information?
Well, to be sure, we don’t go off willy-nilly and offend everyone’s conscience by ignoring long-standing traditions and begin communing the children without anyone’s knowledge or consent. But we also cannot ignore the implications of this.
Now some may wonder why this has never been taught before. Well, it has. In the Large Catechism, Luther writes, “Since children are baptized and received into the Christian Church, they should also enjoy this communion of the Sacrament, in order that they may serve us and be useful to us. They must all certainly help us to believe, love, pray, and fight against the devil.” So we believe, teach, and confess (according to the Confessions of the Church) that children should be receiving this Sacrament.
To be sure, the training of children is not optional. The Scriptures are very clear that the head of the family should teach his children in the chief articles of faith (Eph. 6:4). So don’t just start communing and stop training and teaching. But what are the chief articles? Or more pointedly, what is the Chief Article? Simply this: that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of His Father before all worlds, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord; who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sin, from death and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, that I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. This is most certainly true. Upon this article everything that we teach and practice depends, in opposition to the devil and the whole world (SA 2, I, 5).
In the Christian Questions and Answers in the Small Catechism, we ask the children, “Now how do we know that Christ died for us and shed His blood for us?” They answer, “From the holy Gospel, from the words instituting the Sacrament, and by His body and blood given me as a pledge in the Sacrament” (emphasis mine). Now how can they answer this way when they have never been given His body and blood in the Sacrament? How do they know it’s for them if no one ever gives it to them or invites them to eat and drink? By our actions we are telling the children that the Supper is not for them! It seems that we try and soften the blow by adding the consolation, “yet” as in, “it’s not for you yet,” but today is the day of salvation, not tomorrow. Besides, given that we don’t give the Sacrament to the children until they have been Confirmed, it’s no wonder people think they have earned the right to the Sacrament and think that they may or may not take it as they want to, according to their own tastes and preferences. According to this way of thinking, the Sacrament is not a gift based on confession but a right earned by study and accomplishment.
I will leave off for now, but one final comment: We don’t give the Sacrament to those who understand because no one understands. No one understands how the bread is His body or how the cup is His blood. No one understands how eating and drinking deliver life and salvation. We believe that they do. We eat and drink in faith, clinging to Christ’s word and promise. So the question comes: do we say a child cannot eat and drink because they cannot believe that the bread is the Body of Christ and the Cup is the Blood of Christ? Or because they cannot believe that such eating and drinking do the very thing that Jesus says it does: give the forgiveness of sins and life and salvation? Our children believe the same way we believe, because the Word preached. The little ears that hear, “this is my body, given for you; this is my blood, shed for you,” cause the little hand to reach out and the little heart to covet the gift of God. Jesus’ words to His little ones cause them to confess the truth as they say “Amen” to His words. It is written, “Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise” (Matt. 21:16). A child’s confession, because it is born of faith, is more powerful and more convincing than all the theological treatises ever devised about why such a little one of God is denied the very thing our Lord gives for her.