Unbaptized children and Communion

In this article about children and communion, the author explains why ubaptized children should be excluded from communion.

Robert M. Johnston, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of New Testament studies at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

An unfortunate practice occurs in some Seventh-day Adventist churches, perhaps as a result of ignoring the context of a statement by Ellen White in The Desire of Ages, page 656. The first part of the paragraph reads as follows:

“Christ’s example forbids exclusiveness at the Lord’s Supper. It is true that open sin excludes the guilty. This the Holy Spirit plainly teaches. 1 Cor. 5:11. But beyond this none are to pass judgment. God has not left it with men to say who shall present themselves on these occasions. For who can read the heart? Who can distinguish the tares from the wheat?”

This statement provides the basis of what we call open Communion. Unlike certain denominations, Seventh-day Adventists permit members of other churches—provided that they have received some kind of baptism—to participate in our celebrations of the Lord’s Supper.

But the statement has been pressed far beyond its original intention when used to support the allowing of participation by persons who have never received any kind of Christian baptism. An examination of the context shows that Ellen G. White makes this comment in connection with Christ’s including Judas Iscariot at the table. Her point is we have no right to exclude someone from the Supper on the basis of whatever secret sins or insincerity we might suspect this person harbors.

The reasons for discouraging unbaptized persons of any age from partaking in Communion are biblical, historical, spiritual, logical, and pastoral.

Biblical reasons.On the basis of John 13, Seventh-day Adventists regard footwashing as a part of the Communion service. What applies to the basin applies also to the table. In John 13:10, Jesus makes clear that baptism is a prerequisite of footwashing. In this verse, two key Greek words are used : louein and niptein. The first word is used for bathing, and in this context, it represents baptism. The second word represents footwashing. Just as one who has not bathed is not made clean by washing only the feet, even so an unbaptized person is not made clean by the ordinance of footwashing, which here synecdochically stands for the entire Communion experience. At this point we should remember the powerful warning in 1 Corinthians 11:27–32 against partaking of the Supper unworthily.

Historical reasons.Christian tradition, until relatively modern times, reveals agreement that Communion is only for baptized persons. The earliest surviving church manual, dating from early in the second century A.D., says, “But let none eat or drink of your Eucharist except those who have been baptized in the Lord’s Name. For concerning this also did the Lord say, ‘Give not that which is holy to the dogs’ ” (Didache 9:5). For many centuries the common practice was to separate the preaching service from the Communion service and to send unbaptized persons home after the preaching and before the Communion.

Spiritual reasons.An unbaptized person, especially a child, who partakes of the elements of the Lord’s Supper before becoming a baptized Christian can hardly be expected to develop a sense of the privilege and special blessing involved. It can only be common—and commonplace— to him or her. While we should avoid superstition and any idea of ex opere operato, we dare not allow this wondrous occasion to seem common or routine.

Logical reasons. A natural and logical order exists among the ordinances. Baptism signifies the birth of faith and commitment while Communion nurtures it. You cannot nurture that which has not been born. One is the beginning, the other the continuation. Ellen G. White writes that “We are not prepared for communion with Him unless cleansed by His efficacy.”*

Pastoral reasons. If a child is old enough to partake of Communion, why is not he or she old enough to be baptized? Is Communion less sacred and important than baptism? If any person wants to partake in the Supper, let that person give decisive expression to their commitment to Christ by receiving baptism.

*Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assoc., 1940), 649 (see also p. 646).

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Robert M. Johnston, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of New Testament studies at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

June 2007

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