One of the few glaring errors of the Protestant Reformers was the failure to welcome children back to the Lord’s Table. Something that seems to go along with this was the exclusion of other kinds of Christians, primarily Roman Catholics, from Holy Communion in Protestant churches.
Exclusion of Roman Catholics at the time of the Reformation is certainly understandable. For several centuries Mediterranean Latin Christendom, centered in Rome, had been in conflict with northern European Christendom, centered to a large extent in the Emperor. Welf and Webeling, Guelph and Ghibelline, had fought for a lone time. Different paradigms of Christendom had arisen and been reinforced. A Papal “invasion” of the north by the insistence on support for the building of St. Peter’s in Rome was seen as but another attempt at “conquest.”
From the standpoint of the north, the sin of Rome was seen in the sale of indulgences. The revolt against these liturgical corruptions, which in God’s providence came to be located in Martin Luther initially, led eventually to the separation of the northern Christendom from the southern.
Various very important theological differences emerged from this break, but none of these should have caused a refusal to serve “Roman Catholics” Holy Communion. There seem to have been several reasons for this bad mistake. One is the execution and burning alive of young Protestant advocates. Such actions created antipathy and a natural desire to hit back. (It is the burden of the epistle of James to warn true Christians not to hit back, precisely because we have a tendency to do so.)
Another reason is that the Papal churches “excommunicated” those seeking reform in the Protestant manner. Well, they excommunicated us, so we’ll excommunicate them.
Yet, it seems that too often this was justified by saying that those still lodged in “Roman” churches did not understand the Bible the right way. Because they believed serious errors, they were not to be served communion. And this is a very serious mistake. After all, are these people baptized? Yes. Are they “improving” on their baptisms by attending a Reformation church (to use the language of the Westminster Confession of Faith)? Yes. All right, then after all, don’t they belong at Jesus’ table along with all His other children? Surely, yes.
This kind of charitable extension, however, was lost to view because the Protestants failed to restore the Table to children. Despite their insistence on “faith alone,” at a practical level they demanded that their children achieve some kind of intellectual “work” in order to be admitted to Jesus’ lap. This grievous mistake meant that neither could ignorant and untaught Christians be allowed near
Jesus either, despite His own wishes.
During my brief tenure in the pastorate, in Tyler, Texas, in the mid-1980s, we restored children to the table. Children were to be catechized at the Table, not as a prelude to it. Our worship was unified, so the Supper was celebrated along with preaching every week.
One thing we realized rather quickly was that if we welcomed ignorant (pre-taught) children to Jesus’ lap and table (Mark 10:13-16), we could hardly keep away ignorant (pre-taught) Arminians, Baptists, Roman Catholics, or Eastern Christians. Jesus had baptized them and put them at His table; we were not to keep them away (Matthew 18:2, 10).
Another implication was that we needed to respect the discipline of other kinds of churches, even of those who might readily despise ours. And so now two stories.
In the early 1980s a man visited Tyler who wanted to bring himself and his family into the church. When we interviewed him, however, it developed that he had been excommunicated by the Reformed Baptist church in the city from which he was seeking to move. He claimed that he had been excommunicated simply because he had changed his views and adopted infant baptism. We explained to him that we could not serve him the Supper until we had investigated this. This did not sit well with him.
So, my senior pastor phoned up the Reformed Baptist pastor, who told him that it had been with deep regret that he and his elders had excommunicated Mr. X, and that it was not at all simply because he had changed his mind. Rather, it was because he had sent out letters and phoned people saying that the pastor and elders were sinful heretics for failing to recognize infant baptism. When told that he needed to stop this undermining activity, which is condemned so often in the psalms, he refused and eventually forced the hands of the elders. He told us that he and his elders continued to pray for Mr. X.
When we told Mr. X that we would not permit him into the church we pastored until he had resolved this issue, he threw a fit and marched out, condemning us in no uncertain terms. Then, about eight months later, we received a phone call from him: “I want to thank you men from the bottom of my heart for your rebuke. I was angry, but then I cooled off and realized you were right. I’ve since reconciled with my Baptist brethren, and they have transferred me to a local conservative Presbyterian church here in town.” A letter from the Reformed Baptist pastor confirmed this to us.
Second story: A few years later a couple came to town and wanted to join. It turned out that the wife had been excommunicated from her Independent Fundamentalist Baptist church in Big City, and again the issue was impenitent troublemaking and talebearing. She was willing to be led, so two of the pastors put on their clerical collars and flew with her and her husband back to Big City and met with the Deacons of the Baptist church. They were astounded and said, “Can you believe it? These Presbyterian guys actually honor our discipline!” After conversations and repentance, they happily dismissed the lady to our oversight.
James B. Jordan is scholar-in-residence at Theopolis.