Monday, August 12, 2013

Can Kids Drink Unworthily?

Now before getting into some of the details of the text (1 Cor. 11:17-34), I want to do two things. First, I want to make clearer the difficulty I’m raising in my first post in this series. Second, I want to consider the passage in the larger context and flow of the epistle.

So first, the difficulty. It's often asserted that this passage ought to keep kids who lack a certain level of cognitive development from coming to the table. Why? Well, because they cannot either “examine” themselves or “discern the body” (1 Cor. 11:28-29). 

How we determine that level of cognitive development is worth considering, but it’s not the point I wish to pursue now. What I want to pursue now is simply what is implied in saying that a lack of cognitive development excludes kids from coming to the family meal of the church. For if we want to say that children do not have the capacity to participate in the examining and discerning Paul calls for, then should we not also say that they probably lack the capacity to participate in the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner? And if they cannot participate unworthily, then why are we excluding them?

But, someone will say, “Ah, but we don’t have to decide whether or not they can participate unworthily.” Why not? We’ve decided we have to decide whether they are old enough to examine and to discern. So why wouldn’t we also want to ask if they can commit the sin that concerns Paul? Isn’t that why he wants the examining and discerning to be done? So isn’t the question about whether so-called cognitively underdeveloped children can participate in an unworthy manner or not more fundamental to the whole discussion for deciding whether to include or exclude covenant kids from the family meal?

So let’s consider what we might make of answering either “yes” or “no” to our question. Say someone says, “No, covenant kids cannot participate unworthily, for they lack the requisite mental development.” Well, then, why exclude them? Isn’t Paul’s concern to warn those who would participate unworthily? It’s not just to exclude those who lack a certain kind of development. No, that’s not at all the topic of his discussion. He wants to prevent guilt-generating participation in the family meal. He wants to prevent the Lord's judgment from falling on people who participate unworthily.

But say one answers, “Yes, covenant kids are mentally developed enough to participate unworthily.” Okay, so why then do we say they’re not mentally developed enough to examine or to discern? How have we decided this—and done so with such certainty?

Do you see the difficulty? I don’t see how people can get around it. Unless they just ignore it. Which ignoring seems to being going on quite a lot.

In the next post, I will consider the context of 1 Cor. 11:17-34. It seems to me that it’s essential for us to discern properly Paul’s purpose in writing the epistle and his purpose in the section in which our passage comes. The larger context of the whole epistle, with the circumstances and condition of the Corinthians that Paul’s addressing, and then also the flow of thought in the larger section in which our passage participates—these are crucial for asking the right questions of the passage. Who is Paul trying to exclude from the table anyway? Would our questions about children likely be in either Paul’s mind or the minds of the Corinthians?

Well, more to come just around the bend.

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