Does 1 Corinthians 11.28 Spell the Death-Knell for Paedocommunion?
The short answer is "no."
Those who oppose paedocommunion regularly appeal to 1 Corinthians 11 to prove that children are not equipped to partake of the Lord's Supper. Verses 24-25, after all, require a capacity for "remembrance," and verse 28 requires a capacity for self-examination. These are things which presuppose a certain amount of reflective ability, and young children simply cannot lay claim to such ability.
The problem with this analysis is that it is too simplistic. It assumes that it can just appeal to the language of remembrance and self-examination, presuppose the meaning for those terms, and shut children out of consideration.
But this is faulty on the hermeneutical (method of interpretation) level. We must ask more probing questions regarding the context within the epistle, as well as the conceptual context which is supplied by old covenant sacraments, and particularly Passover.
Unfortunately, we have been at the mercy of a questionable translation of the remembrance phrase which appears in 1 Corinthians 11:24, 25. We almost always get something like: "Do this in remembrance of Me." And that, in our minds, translates out to something like this: "Do this while remembering Me." On this reading, the way to celebrate the Lord's Supper is by remembering Him in some subjective fashion.
But the translation is unsatisfactory. The phrase in question is more literally, "Do this unto My remembrance." The Greek preposition usually translated "in" in these verses (eis) very rarely takes that meaning (particularly when the meaning rendered is an "in" of manner, rather than an "in" of location). This preposition generally has a directional or purposive function, so that, in varying contexts, it can be rendered with "into," "unto," or "as" (such as: "it was reckoned to him as righteousness").
The truth is, parallel phrases and language can be readily found in the Old Testament. In Leviticus 24:7, for instance, the frankincense is placed upon the bread for a memorial to the Lord. The very same phrase is used as is found in 1 Cor. 11:24, 25 (eis anamnesin). Obviously, the text in Leviticus does not mean that the frankincense engages in subjective remembrance of the Lord, or even that the priest does so. Rather, it is the act itself which constitutes a remembrance.
This is typical of old covenant sacraments. Numbers 10:10 says that the feasts and sacrifices were to be a memorial for Israel before their God. In connection with Passover (particularly relevant due to the connection between Lord's Supper and Passover), Exodus 12:14 declares that this day is to be for them a memorial.
The point is that this remembrance which we find in 1 Corinthians 11 is not a de novo introduction. It stands in line with how the sacraments have always been constructed. And even if we were to grant that Passover did not admit children (which we most certainly do not), it is absolutely certain that other rites which had this remembrance-character did. Consequently, it is not some subjective requirement that lifts the sacrament out of reach for young children. Remembrance, whatever more precise meaning we put upon it, is not an exclusionary requirement.
"Let a man examine himself, and so let him eat...." The one invariable anti-paedocommunion argument is drawn from 1 Corinthians 11:28. Self-examination is required, and we all assume we know what it means.
But let us consider the context in 1 Corinthians a bit before we make a snap judgment. In the Corinthian correspondence, Paul is working on a couple of related fronts. He is striving for the unity of the church, which is being undermined through pride and self-seeking. And he is striving to present the Corinthians as God's approved people.
In 1 Corinthians, schisms are rending the body (see e.g. 1:10-17). Paul's concern is the koinonia (communal participation) in Christ into which His people have been called (1:9).
The related front is that of danger. The theme of judgment pervades chapter 5; 9:24ff. into chapter 10; and chapter 11:27ff.
In chapters 8-10, Paul deals with the desire of the Corinthians to eat food offered to idols. There are two distinct threads in this argument. There is certainly the possibility of buying food in the market (and in that setting, it would have had some association with idolatry) with a free conscience - but not if your freedom causes your brother to stumble, to become weak. After all, Paul says, he is their example: he has given up his own rights, so that he may win the more. Eating with offense is grievous, because they are members one of another.
But then Paul is careful to say that idolatry is not a matter indifferent. To eat in an idol temple may seem to be a mere scoffing at the reality of the idol - but Paul calls it a tempting of the Lord to jealousy, to wrath (10:19-22).
Now, we need to hear the pattern of argument. In 9:1-23, Paul has given himself as an example of forfeiture of personal rights for the sake of others. But then he goes further. He explains that they are in a race, and that it is conceivable that one could be expelled from this race, rather than receiving the prize that is sought. Consequently, Paul says he savagely disciplines his body, lest, although he has preached to others, he himself should become disqualified (9:27).
What is particularly important about that statement is that word disqualified. The Greek adjective (adokimos) is directly related to the verb examine in 11:28. More on that in a moment.
In 10:1ff., Paul develops the danger he has just alluded to: that it is possible to taste the greatest of blessings, and yet become disqualified, unapproved. Look at Israel: they were baptized into Moses in the cloud and the sea; they drank of Christ Who followed them. And yet they become adokimos (more accurately, adokimoi - the plural; adokimos is singular). In connection with the latter part of chapter 9, that is Paul's implicit point in chapter 10. (It is true that the dokim- word group does not appear in chapter 10, but the concept clearly flows out of 9:27. Moreover, the synonymous word group peirazo/peirasmos appears in 10:9, 13.)
Many of those Israelites, recipients of divine benefits including the sacraments, perished in the wilderness. Two reasons for this judgment Paul provides: fornication and idolatry. This is pertinent in Corinth, of course, due to the gross immorality that Paul had to deal with back in chapter 5, as well as the immediate context of idolatry.
The apostle explains that these things were "examples," or more specifically, patterns/types, for us, the new covenant people of God. Consequently, we too must beware that having apparently stood, we yet fall.
It is against this backdrop that the call for self-examination (dokimazein) in 11:28 must be understood. Dokimazo corresponds to the dokimos/adokimos concepts which Paul has introduced in 9:27. To examine oneself is to put oneself to proof as to whether one has or has not broken faith with Christ. It is not a subjective moment of introspection, in which one determines whether he is "worthy," and certainly it is not a time to make sure one feels correctly about the elements.
This is all made clear in 2 Corinthians 13:5, where all of these terms appear together. "Test [peirazo] yourselves, whether you are in the faith, examine [dokimazo] yourselves: or do you not know that Jesus Christ is in you - unless you are disqualified [adokimoi]."
How is this functioning in 1 Corinthians 11:28?
Paul's immediate concern in 1 Corinthians 11 is the divisions which have carried over in Corinth, even so far as the Lord's Supper table (11:17-22). This is particularly offensive, because in 10:16-17, Paul has explained that the Lord's Supper is the communion in the body and blood of Christ.
Communion is koinonia, a word difficult to pin down with one English word. Koinonia gets stuck with unclear renderings like fellowship and communion, but these are inadequate (an observation which is granted by virtually all commentators). Thiselton is probably most clear and accurate with his two word phrase communal participation.
When Paul says that the cup is the 'communion' in the blood of Christ (v. 16), he is saying something much more corporate than what we tend to think based upon the English rendering. He is not depicting a private experience between Christ and the believer, as our English word communion may well lead us to believe. No, the cup is the communal participation in the blood of Christ. Participation in Christ is a together-participation, a corporate act of the Church body. Consequently, the logic is very direct in the verse following when Paul says that because we all eat of the one bread, we are all one body, despite the fact that we are many. Union with Christ at the table is a union together, and the unity of Christ makes the Church one as well.
But the Corinthian Church makes a mockery of this, with each eating his own supper, rather than the Lord's Supper, because they do not eat together. They seek approval by way of status (11:19), rather than by way of living out the self-denying pattern of community which Paul has set for them (cf. ch. 9). Thus the Supper is set on its head; instead of being the locus of unity and union, it has become a means of further fragmentation and arrogant schism. No wonder Paul says that this coming together is not to eat the Lord's Supper!
Moreover, Paul has already warned that the Church is God's temple, and that if anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him (3:16-17). He is now showing that precisely such destruction of the temple is implied in the Corinthian behaviour at the table.
In view of 9:24-10:22, then, Paul is putting this church-disintegrating behaviour on a sort of line with (or at least analogy to) the gross immorality and idolatry that constituted those committing such as adokimoi, those who had broken faith with Christ. (Cf. 8:12: causing a brother to stumble is sinning against Christ Himself.) Hence it is not surprising that the concepts of judgment which are developed in 9:24-10:22 reappear in 10:27-32. The Corinthians are endangering their position as God's approved people, precisely because they are refusing to be a people - a body.
The call to self-examination, then, is the call to prove oneself in this context. Are you adokimoi, or have you kept faith with Christ by way of living in unity with His body? That is what dokimazein is all about in 11:28.
What does all this have to do with our children? Well, if we take it to mean exclusion, we run into a problem immediately. Because with reference to the Israelites in the wilderness which Paul has discussed in 10:1ff., it was in fact the children that possessed the Promised Land, while the adults all perished in the wilderness (Joshua and Caleb the exceptions). In other words, it was the adults who became adokimoi.
But God never suggests such of our children. The only time we find anything of the sort implied concerning children in Scripture, it is always in connection with the sins of their parents (e.g. the destruction of the children when Dathan and Abiram perished). If we would spare our children from divine judgment, we will do so, not by barring them from the Lord's table, but by keeping faith with Christ and His Church ourselves.
Indeed, such reassurance concerning the status of covenant children underlies Paul's statement in 7:14 that the children of even one believing parent are holy (or saints). They are qualified by Christ to be full members of the congregation of God (cf. the similar language of holiness/saints in 1:2). And that congregation is such precisely for the purpose of a calling into koinonia (1:9) - a koinonia signified, sealed, and indeed enacted, in the Lord's Supper.
The irony of the appeal to 1 Corinthians 11, in service to an argument against paedocommunion, is severely profound. In this chapter - and indeed in this epistle - Paul is fighting for the unity of the Church. There are to be no 'spiritual' or 'social' superiors/inferiors at the table, for all are one body in Christ. And yet the antipaedocommunionist appropriation of this text institutionalizes precisely such disunity. It denies the genuine status of baptized children, placing them outside of the meal that is, in a very real sense, the communal participation of Christ's people in Himself (10:16).
Nothing could have been further from Paul's intention when he wrote 1 Corinthians 11. By means of his directives, he was ensuring unity, real unity, at the table. The examination that his warning calls for is, in part (and especially in the immediate context) a putting oneself to proof regarding who we are in relationship to the Church of Jesus Christ.
And covenant children are members of that Church. The result of sound self-examination would rightly lead us to repent of our divisive history of shutting them out from the blessings of the table. That is the practical import of 1 Corinthians 11:28 in connection with the question of paedocommunion.
For a related article on 1 Corinthians 11:29, "Discerning the Body," click here.
This has been just a capsule treatment. Fuller argumentation can be found in my book, Feed My Lambs, which devotes 35 pages to 1 Corinthians 11, and focuses most extensively on verses 28-32.