Why Commune Younger than Eighth Grade?

Why Commune Younger than Eighth Grade?

From the Messiah Messenger, April 2009

By Pastor Todd A. Peperkorn

Our congregation is in the process of separating first communion from confirmation, so that while they may be done at the same time, they are not necessarily going to be done at the same time. This move is the result of several years of study on my part as your pastor, and on the part of the elders, as we have wrestled with how to best serve the people whom God has entrusted to our care in this place. In order to further our conversation, I believe it would be helpful

Why are we separating first communion and confirmation? I have wrestled with this question for many years, and I would distill the reasons down to the following basic points:

1. We receive Christ’s Body and Blood for the forgiveness of sins, and we should want to give it to our children as soon as possible.

This is the simplest and most important point. The Scriptures teach us that we receive Holy Communion for the forgiveness of sins (Words of Institution). The catechism teaches that “in the Sacrament forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are given us through these words.” Our hymnody repeatedly affirms this as well, with such lines as “Lord may thy body and thy blood, be for my soul the highest good,” and “Thy blood, O Lord, one drop has pow’r to win Forgiveness for our world and all its sin,” and “This food can death destroy,” and many more.

If this is the case, as a Church we should want to commune our children as soon as we are able to do so, because of the many blessings which God gives through the Sacrament of the Altar. It is not a reward at the end of a lot of work, like a graduation present. Rather, it is a gift to be received in faith, and a testimony of God’s love toward us in Jesus Christ.

2. The biblical requirement for receiving the Sacrament of the Altar is faith.

Our catechism question puts it this way:

Who receives this sacrament worthily?
?Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training. But that person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words: “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” But anyone who does not believe these words or doubts them is unworthy and unprepared, for the words “for you” require all hearts to believe. 

This is a part of the basis for our understanding that receiving the Lord’s Supper isn’t simply a matter of maturity, rational development, age, service in the church, who your parents are, or some other criterion. The question is faith, and the confession of faith. Since we can’t read someone’s heart, we can only read their lips (verbal confession) and their feet (how their confession shapes what they do). If someone confesses the Christian faith as it has been given to us in the Scriptures, comes to the Divine Service to receive the gifts, speaks and acts as a Christian, then we should commune them.

This is also, by the way, why we practice closed communion. We only admit those individuals to the Altar who confess the faith as it has been given to us in His Word and confessed by this congregation. If someone confesses the faith differently by being a member of a different church body, we aren’t saying they aren’t a Christian. We are saying that because their confession is different, we can’t commune together at this time.

So when it comes to our own children, who are catechized here at church and/or at our school, at our Sunday school, and who attend the Divine Service here with their families, there is no question really that they are Christians, and furthermore that they confess the faith as we do.

3. The notion that in order to receive Holy Communion requires massive amounts of head knowledge and catechism memorization goes against the rest of our actual practice.

We don’t require adult confirmands to have massive amounts of memorized materials. We don’t require current members to continue to demonstrate a level of understanding beyond what we confess together Sunday morning. In fact, I would go so far as to say that children often have a clearer grasp of the Christian faith than adults, because they don’t have as many rationalistic or emotional baggage to bog them down. Jesus actually holds up children as the model of faith (Mark 10:13-16).

Certainly teaching the faith is important. We are all lifelong learners of God’s Word, and learning God’s Word goes right along with Holy Baptism (Matthew 28:16-20). But it is very difficult to argue from the Scriptures that having massive amounts memorized should be a prerequisite for receiving the Sacrament. It is good. It is helpful. We should all continually learn the Scriptures and the Catechism by heart. But this is not a prerequisite.

4. Having a period of formal instruction for children at a later age (5-8 grade range) is good and useful, but cannot be used as an argument for withholding Holy Communion from them at that time.

One of the reasons that I have urged separating first communion from confirmation is simply because I want to have a formal period of instruction with children when they are in the middle school years. I simply don’t think that we should use that period of instruction as a gateway or barrier to receiving the Sacrament of the Altar. By separating first communion and confirmation, we are able to offer this period of instruction to our children, but also give them the Sacrament at an earlier age. Otherwise, my fear is that we simply move confirmation younger and younger, and the opportunity for that later instruction will be harder to realize.

5. The possibility of abuse exists whether we separate confirmation and first communion or not.

There are always going to be individuals who are going to try and beat the system. There will always be people who want to do the absolute least amount of work possible in order to get their children confirmed. Some people are only going to respond to the Law. If I as the pastor require them to attend church while their child is in instruction, then they will. If I don’t require it, they won’t come. Or, they will only come a few times a year.

So how do we as a congregation respond to this? We respond by praying, by encouraging, and by working as responsibly and as carefully as we can to deliver the Gospel in as many ways as God has given us to do it. It makes no sense to me as a pastor to penalize one child because another child’s parents might not want their child to receive the Gospel.

Conclusion and Implications

Practically speaking, what I envision is that down the road, we will generally have first communion around first to third grade, and confirmation between fifth and eighth grade. However, I think it will take us some time to get to that point. There will be several years of transition, and different families are going to want to handle this differently. This is fine and good, as we work through this together as a church.

These are a few more thoughts on our ongoing conversation here. I hope it is helpful, and I would continue to encourage you to come to bible class, where we are discussing this at some length.

In Christ,
Pastor Peperkorn

16 thoughts on “Why Commune Younger than Eighth Grade?

  1. I like it. Confirmation shouldn't be held up as some sort of "graduation." I've seen too many kids go through confirmation and then skip like they were once-saved-always-saved or something.

  2. Excellent. I've been thinking about this for a long time, and I've tried to give a concise explanation. This says what I've tried to say, only better.

  3. To me, if you make Confirmation just the end of an instruction period, then it really looks like Graduation. Remove from the Rite of Confirmation the formal reception of a person into communicant membership, and all you have is a Graduation ceremony. Why not confirm the person whenever he or she is admitted to the altar (whether age 5 or 13) and still have your instruction period in the middle school years as you have said. Why have them go through a separate Rite at the end of the Instruction?

    I am in agreement with you that requirements for receiving communion should be less than they are, and not based merely on academic progress. I think adults should actually have stricter requirements. But why can we not just lower the age of communion and call it "Confirmation" whenever they are admitted to the altar? That's what I have done. My daughter was admitted to the Sacrament at the age of 9, and I simply used the Rite of Confirmation. After that I continued to have instruction with her for another year or so. And then when that period was over, that was it.

    I understand your fear, however, of it becoming more difficult to insist on instruction if Confirmation is moved earlier.

  4. Before he died, my father, who was a faithful teacher/principal for 26 years, heavily involved in confirmation instruction of young people, and then as a pastor for the remainder of his career, said that he hoped the Missouri Synod would come to a point where it realized that connecting first communion to confirmation in the 7th and 8th grade was and is not the best way to go.

    I agree with him, and with you, Pr. Peperkorn 1000%

  5. Why not connect first communion and confirmation in 2nd grade? OR whatever grade a person is ready to be admitted to the altar? Why must confirmation as a Rite follow an academic style course in Christian doctrine?

  6. I understand the argument, and I don't have a problem with it. From my perspective, this really isn't even a theological question. It is a pastoral one. What is going to best serve the sheep entrusted to our care? I am not envisioning an "academic style course in Christian doctrine" as a must precede confirmation. I think that periods of intense instruction can be good and salutary, and that they do not have to be styled as "academic". For my part, I want catechesis to have a much greater focus on prayer and hearing the Word of God than on the route recitation of facts.

  7. Todd,

    What I miss in your article is a discussion of the importance of self-examination on the part of a communicant. Our understanding of such self-examination can be further elaborated, I would say, as a conscious reflection on, and devout deliberation of, the meaning and implications of the Words of Institution.

  8. Chemnitz speaks to this here:

    "…Paul shows (1 Cor. 11:23-34) from the rule of the institution that some among the Corinthians were eating unworthily. And when he wants to show how they could eat the Lord's Supper worthily and with profit, he sets before them the institution itself as he had received it from the Lord. …the mind, from the words of institution, understands, believes with firm assent, and in the use of the Lord's Supper reverently ponders what this sacrament is, what its use is, and what the nature of this whole action is – that here
    the Son of God, God and man, is Himself present, offering and imparting through the ministry to those who eat, together with the bread and wine, His body and blood, in order that by means of this most precious testimony and pledge He may unite Himself with us and apply, seal, and confirm to us the New Testament covenant of grace. And this faith, resting on the words of institution, excites and shapes reverence and devotion of mind as this sacrament is used. …the institution itself shows that this is necessary and required for worthy eating…" (Examination of the Council of Trent, Part II, p. 317)

  9. And this is the sort of thing our Large Catechism is getting at when it says:

    "…we must speak about the…sacrament…under three headings, stating what it is, what its benefits are, and who is to receive it. All this is established from the words Christ used to institute it. So everyone who wishes to be a Christian and to go to the sacrament should know them. For we do not intend to admit to the sacrament and administer it to those who do not know what they seek or why they come." (LC V:1-2)

  10. So, in principle, I would be persuaded that someone is ready to be admitted to the Sacrament of the Altar if I am persuaded that he or she has the capacity (partly through mental development and chiefly through instruction) to reflect on, and ponder, the meaning of the Words of Institution in this way. The Lord's Supper is unique in this sense, because in this sacrament the instituting Words of the Lord are addressed to the recipients ~as recipients~, thereby of necessity engaging their minds and reflective capabilities. This is of the essence of the Supper. And this is in contrast to Baptism, where the instituting Words of the Lord are directed, not to the recipients as such, but to those who would administer the sacrament to someone else (telling a minister what to say when he baptizes). Therefore, with Baptism, someone who does not have the capacity to reflect and meditate on the Words can still profitably be baptized, as long as the minister who peforms it is doing it according to the directive of Christ. The Lord's Supper, though, adds that additional dimension of conscious reflection and understanding as a prerequisite to a profitable and proper reception, because of who the Words of the Supper are directly addressing.

  11. The Lord's Supper does offer great blessings: forgiveness, life, and salvation. And it offers these blessings in a unique way. But we also must always remember that these blessings are offered with equal power in the preached Word, in Absolution, and in Baptism. Each of the means of grace does not offer only a part of divine forgiveness, but each offers the whole blessing of forgiveness. According to the Lord's will for his church, his full grace is ~layered~ on us over and over again through our participation in all of these means. We don't receive a piece of it here and a piece of it there. So, in encouraging people to commune, and in encouraging people to see to it that their children are prepared to commune, we would not want to imply that that these people, or their children, do not elsewise already have access to Christ and the Gospel in its full saving power. They do. Before they commune they may not be partaking of that particular "layering" of the Gospel, but they are not lacking in the Gospel in general.

  12. Todd, what you are suggesting is a major improvement over our current practice. God bless your efforts to bring your parish to a deeper appreciation of the Sacrament, and a sense of urgency in receiving it.

  13. Rev. Peperkorn, I shared your proposal with the students in my "Confirmation in the LCMS" course here at CSL and it was well received. I think with a little time and education, this model will become more accepted and readily used. IMHO it is more consistent with our Lutheran heritage and avoids many of the pitfalls the produced the deplorable situation we have today. The reformation of "Junior Confirmation" combined with the resurrection of a model of life-long catechesis promises to turn the tide on our loss of identity. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  14. I find this to be a helpful discussion of the matter, and I can't say that I share Pr. Webber's concerns. I think that implicit in your discussion is that the children will know what the Supper is and why they seek it.

    As you say, it's a matter of pastoral concern.

    Next year I'll begin catechesis for two kids. One will be in seventh grade and the other sixth. The second will be confirmed a year earlier than usual. My people see it as a matter of pastoral care and they have no problem with me doing it.

  15. Thank you for this wonderful discussion! I am very eager for my son to participate in Holy Communion and find it unacceptable that he would be denied this wonderful gift of God until the rather arbitrarily designated time of eighth grade. Children are quite capable of understanding and articulating their faith at a much earlier age. I pray this trend grows in our church.

  16. Its a sticky subject, to be sure. Your point is precise. It is a "system", factory, etc. I find it ironic that the argumentation we use for communing mentally handicap (exception) we deny our own children.

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