Q: Some Lutheran churches give Communion to children even before they have begun Confirmation classes. Is this a good practice to follow? It seems to me that they should have full instruction first, as the Lutheran Church has done in the past.”
A: Already in the 1960’s this practice was being introduced in the Lutheran synods which today make up the present ELCA. By separating “first Communion” from the time of Confirmation, they felt this would enable eligible young Christians, such as at fifth grade level, to receive the true body and blood of Christ after some preliminary training and then save Confirmation until a more mature age. Tenth grade was suggested as the time for Confirmation.
Our present practice of having our children wait until Confirmation (often at 8th or 9th grade level) before communing is not divinely mandated in Scripture. The age level for being confirmed and the age level for receiving Communion are matters left to the freedom of each congregation. What is necessary, though, is the instruction that ought to precede Communion, since this helps a Christian properly prepare for the reception of the true body and blood of Christ in a salutary manner. “A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks a judgment on himself,” (I Cor. 11:28, 29).
Real difficulties can develop when Communion is offered our children before the thorough instruction received in Confirmation. Would Communion become simply a ritual in the minds of many? Would congregational families end up neglecting the more thorough training at the time of Confirmation? What if a child unwittingly holds to certain doctrinal errors that further instruction can help eradicate, and yet the child is deemed ready for Communion because of a brief introductory session? What happens, for instance, if a child who has been communing since 5th grade is later deemed unfit for Confirmation? Imagine the difficulty that occurs when a child who has been communing early in one Lutheran church then moves to one which does not have the practice.
We realize, of course that Confirmation is not an instituted Sacrament, as is the Lord’s Supper. It is a worthy church custom that provides important instruction in Christian doctrine, reminding the child of its baptism (Gal. 3:26, 27 and I Pet. 2:2), and it teaches the child how to give an answer for the things we believe (I Pet. 3:15).
In spite of all the negatives that are often raised concerning our current Confirmation practice usually at 7th and 8th grade levels, this time period in the development of our youth still is appealing in our circles as the appropriate age for both Confirmation and for receiving “first Communion.” I agree with you that the Lutheran Church’s practice in the past is still the noble course to follow on this matter left to our Christian liberty. One can’t help but see that Luther’s strong opinion would have been the same: ” . . . Those who come to the Sacrament ought to know more and have a fuller understanding of all Christian doctrine than children and beginners at school” (Large Catechism, Preface).