Let me ask you a question: What is it that makes the church unique in the world? Asked another way, what is it that distinguishes the church from all other public gatherings of people across the globe? How are the people of God marked out from the world? This is an important question with far reaching implications. This is because God’s eternal purposes in Christ center on a distinct people that He calls from darkness and into His light, a people He calls the church or, the assembly. Scripture teaches us clearly that the world will know who belongs to this assembly because the world will hate them. Scripture also contains dozens of “one another” commands and obligations that the people of God are expected to carry out in their local gatherings. It stands to reason then that if we are called to “love one another” scripture expects us to know who “one another” is. In other words, the identity of the people of God is clear both to the world and to the church itself. So, I return to the question: what is it that distinguishes the church both to itself and to the world?
Here is the simple answer to that question: the defining and distinguishing mark of a true church is the faithful proclamation of the gospel message. The preaching of the gospel is what makes the church the church. If this is true, and it is, then our role as a church is to faithfully guard and proclaim that message above all else. Everything we do must center on our proclamation and protection of that message. Now, there are many “churches” that regularly preach gospel truths but in the way they conduct church life or in contradictory messages that they promote they fail to protect the gospel and, therefore, lose their distinctiveness and effectiveness in the world.
At the heart of the church’s responsibility to preach and protect the gospel stand what are commonly referred to as the two ordinances: Baptism and Communion. These two rituals are power-packed dramatizations of the gospel message that serve to distinguish the people of God. Every time we observe baptism and the Lord’s Supper we are proclaiming that we are that people scripture refers to who are marked off by the gospel message. Protecting these rituals and their meaning is central to protecting the purity of the gospel message and the identity of people that are defined by that message. The 16th century reformers agreed with this in their definition of the true church. They believed that the true church was defined by the right preaching of the Word of God and by the right administration of the ordinances.
The ordinances then are first and foremost about corporate identity. That is, these ordinances are about visibly and publicly identifying the church. Baptism is the way an individual identifies publicly as a follower of Christ and by that public identification is incorporated into the body. Therefore, baptism has two participants: the person declaring their allegiance to Christ and the people of God who by observing are saying, “you are with us and we are with you in Christ!” Baptism then is that public entrance into the assembly. The world now knows who you belong to and so do the people of God.
"These ordinances are about visibly and publicly identifying the church."
Communion then is the regular activity of the recognizable body of Christ where we are visibly attesting to our oneness in Christ. Again, it is about corporate identity. The same word translated communion is often translated “fellowship” or “participation”.
In 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 you have an example of this when Paul says, “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.” The observance of communion is a visible participation in the oneness of our identity. Our unified identity as the people of God is at the center of its meaning.
This is why the Apostle Paul is not happy in 1 Corinthians 11. The Corinthian church is dishonoring the Lord’s Table by nurturing division around this ordinance that is meant to attest to their unity in Christ. This is the substance of what it means to eat “unworthily.”
Now, believe it or not I have said all that to get to a question that comes up constantly. It has to do with children participating in communion. I regularly have parents that say, “my children want to partake in communion. Can I let them?” Given all that has been discussed above, the simple answer is that a person should not partake in communion until they have publicly identified themselves as part of the people of God through baptism. This goes for children as well.
"A person should not partake in communion until they have publicly identified themselves as part of the people of God through baptism."
Since baptism is the way a person publicly declares their allegiance to Christ and signals their incorporation into the body, I would say that it should take place only when the person’s allegiance is discernible and when they are able to carry out the basic obligations and responsibilities of participation in the body. There is no age requirement but parents should be cautioned against undue angst or urgency in rushing a child to observe the ordinances.
The ordinances stand as wonderful, public proclamations of the gospel message. They serve to identify and mark out the people of God from the world. Protecting them and rightly observing them is core to protecting the gospel. Parents have been commissioned to be disciple-makers of their children and their homes. Therefore, I want my children and your children to regularly see the church observe these ordinances and use them as opportunities to teach them the gospel.
I hope this has provided helpful instruction or reminder for you. If you have any questions or want further help through this question I want to invite you to reach out to me and open up the discussion. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org