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When should a child be baptized or participate in the Lord’s Supper?
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Posted by Bobette Hatteberg and Paul Tautges

 

All Christian parents long for their children to trust in Christ and to make their baptism and communion

profession of faith public.  It's not surprising that children raised in Christian homes sooner or later will ask a parent, “When can I be baptized?" The same question is often asked regarding communion – "When can I take the Lord’s Supper?" It's not surprising, then, that pastors and Children’s Ministry Directors are asked these same questions by parents. How does a parent know when it is appropriate for a child to take part in these very important and vital ordinances of the church?

 

Let’s start with a different question, which must be answered first: Can a child have placed saving faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and if so, how does a parent assess that?

 

Can a child be saved? Absolutely! Is every child who prays a prayer of salvation or who says they love Jesus as their Savior truly saved? Undoubtedly not. So how do parents assess saving faith in the lives of their children? There are some specific manifestations of faith that a parent should look for:

  • Affectionate love for Christ (I Cor. 16:22) - If we are going to believe a child is truly saved, we should see evidence of sweet fellowship and delight in God. This affection would be initiated by the children themselves, not by the parent prodding and the children responding.

  • Determination to obediently follow Christ (Luke 14:27) – A person’s saving faith will be evidenced by true determination to face challenges and make choices that honor the Lord. Often children do not face enough meaningful life-changing choices for us to have confidence that they are capable of choosing seriously to follow Christ.

  • Turning from sin (Matt. 3:6) – Repentance is a crucial element of saving faith. Confession and sincere self-admission of sin is a necessary evidence of conversion.   The danger is to assume that a child whom a parent leads to confess their sin is truly doing it out of faith versus out of obedience to the parent’s suggestion or desire.

  • Knowledge/ Understanding - It is important to assess a child’s understanding of the meaning of salvation (as well as the ordinances of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism). For a profession of faith to be credible people must display at least a basic knowledge of the gospel: their own sinfulness before a holy God, their inability to save themselves or to make right that which is wrong, the perfect sacrifice of Christ on their behalf, the complete forgiveness of sin earned by Christ’s sacrifice, and the reality of Jesus’ resurrection. Children’s thinking is generally undeveloped and simple, therefore, we must be cautious in receiving their expression of commitment concerning anything, including a commitment to Christ. A child who has been transformed by the gospel will be able to relay a basic profession of belief in Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.

  • Independent thinking - A young child may have interest in things of the Lord, and even voice a desire to place faith in Christ as their Savior. However, one very real danger in young children is they are highly impressionable and often do things out of pleasing others or to get something in return. A parent should not dismiss a young child’s profession of faith, but should also not sit back as if the job is done. Instead a parent should continue to teach about salvation, obedience, ongoing repentance, and what it means to submit to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. As their child matures it will become more obvious if the profession of faith was truly that or not. By the time children approach the teen years, they often begin thinking more independently. That's a time where it's more likely that they are embracing decisions and commitments they are making as their own. It's not uncommon for children who profess salvation at a young age, or who are baptized at a young age, to feel the need to do it again when they are older. It's usually because they do not have a strong recollection of what they understood at the earlier age. Therefore, it makes sense for parents to encourage their children to hold off on being baptized or taking communion until a time when they fully embrace the commitment behind a profession of faith.

  • Significance - Participating in the Lord’s Supper and Baptism are significant commandments to be obeyed in the life of a believer. Therefore, they should be approached with an attitude of privilege and anticipation. It's good for young children to watch the older children and adults around them participate in these ordinances with a sense of anticipation of the day when they will one day join in these precious events. By delaying baptism and communion until a more certain credible confession of faith has taken place, esteems these acts as something that should be done only when one is truly a Christian.

  • Maturity – There are many life events that should be associated with maturity. Baptism and communion are two of them. For the purpose of this article, maturity would be marked by beginning to live more self-consciously as individuals. In the process of leaving behind their childlike dependence on their parents, they begin to make more and more of their own choices. Such independence and maturity will allow them to relate to the church directly, and as individuals, rather than primarily under the authority of their parents.

Once a parent answers the salvation question to the best of his or her ability, the answer to the baptism and communion questions become easier.

  • Communion: Children need to be taught what communion is, why we practice it, and who is invited to the Lord’s Supper. Communion is open to those who trust in Jesus alone for the forgiveness of their sins, but it is not open to unbelievers. Therefore, children are welcome to participate in the Lord’s Supper when they have given a credible profession of faith in Christ and have consciously chosen to follow the Lord in obedience. They should also understand the significance of the Lord’s Supper, something parents should seek to teach and explain prior to allowing their child to participate in it. First Corinthians 11:27 warns of the dangers of eating and drinking in an “unworthy manner” and challenges us to examine ourselves. A parent should never be guilty of saying yes to a child just to satisfy the child’s desires when the child does not understand the purpose behind the bread and the cup.

  • Baptism: A child should be taught that this ordinance of God was given to the New Testament church as a command to be obeyed, and to symbolize that the participant has died to sin, been buried, and is now raised to new life in Christ. It serves as a public profession of faith. Acts 8:12, Acts 9:36, and Acts 16:29-34 show the pattern that baptism follows a credible profession of faith.

 

The term “fencing the table” is sometimes used to mean explaining who is and who is not welcome to partake in communion when it is distributed. The analogy of fencing applies to many things in the life of children. Parents wisely fence a yard in order to keep  children safe until they are mature enough to venture outside the yard alone. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are two biblical privileges that parents and pastors should wisely fence. Just like a parent must assess when children are old enough to play outside without a fence, so a parent should discern when children have matured to the point of making an independent profession of faith. Parents may wish to meet with a pastor or elder to talk about these matters. These decisions don’t have to be made alone, but may include counsel from spiritual leaders. Should a child be allowed to participate in one ordinance before another? It seems that baptism is a natural response to placing saving faith in Jesus Christ. Therefore, it might make sense for a child to first be baptized and then to begin participating in the Lord’s Supper. It is important that a certain age is never the criteria because one child can differ greatly than another in a family when they have met these spiritual milestones.  

Just because a child is not fully participating in the ordinances, the ordinances can still be a significant experience in the life of your child. Both baptism and the Lord’s Supper give opportunity for ongoing conversations about confessing sin, examining themselves, and remembering the Lord’s death. Each time the church celebrates baptisms or the Lord’s Supper it is an opportunity for unbelieving children to clearly see the glorious Christ put on display. Parents should continually be relating the gospel to the ordinances in the church. Our prayer is that children will know the sweet fellowship of the living Christ and experience for themselves the life-changing, soul-satisfying work of God in their hearts.

There is no exact test or exercise that will establish a child’s readiness. Parents essentially have to decide for each child when they fit the above criteria. Delaying baptism or participation in the Lord’s Supper does not mean we should consider childhood conversion invalid. But it shows a desire for there to be substantial evidence of true conversion so that we do not promote the possibility of self-deception. Rather than rush them toward baptism or communion after a first profession of faith, would it not be wiser to take advantage of the ongoing opportunity to interact with them and wait for more maturity that proves the commitment to be sound and beyond reasonable doubt, for more evidence of lasting commitment?  

Prayer is no doubt crucial as we wait on the Lord to do the work that only He can do in the heart of a child, or even an adult.   As your children approach you with requests to partake in baptism or the Lord’s Supper, why not encourage them by saying, “It's so good to hear you talk that way! I hope you love the Lord, and if you really do, from the heart, it will become clearer to you and to us as well, as you walk by the teaching of Scripture and grow in Christ. Let’s pray together!” Challenge them by impressing on their consciences the perspectives of passages like Matthew 10: 37-38 – that coming to Christ results in a life-time commitment of faithfulness to Christ from which one does not turn back, even if others cease to follow Him. Challenge them to grow in God’s Word on their own by reading and applying the Word of God, reminding them that real conversion, in a person of any age, always includes a change in the heart. Explain to them that true conversion can be a very difficult thing to recognize, especially in children, and that rather than worry about making their profession public, they should instead concentrate on pursuing Christ will all their heart.

Don't be surprised when God saves His people at a young age! But don't assume the first agreement a child gives to the gospel is evidence of saving faith.



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