Intellectual Disability and the Holy Supper
It is a sound Reformed practice not to allow children to attend the Lord's Supper. We expect from the participants a certain maturity of knowledge and motivation before they can make public profession of their faith. As a general (but unwritten) rule, we hold to the age of 17 or 18 as a commonly accepted minimum for that.
But how do we deal with brothers and sisters who have an intellectual disability? They reach the age and physical maturity of adulthood, but their level of thinking does not develop accordingly. Should we allow, even encourage, these brothers and sisters to profess the faith, and join in with the active celebration of the Holy Supper?
In two recent articles in Nederlands Dagblad (Variant, May 20 and June 17, 1995) Dr J. Douma argues that we should. (Dr Douma, now retired, was professor of ethics at the Theological University of our Dutch sister churches in Kampen, the Netherlands.)
Dr Douma raises this question: "Should our intellectually disabled adult members be permanently disqualified from coming to the Holy Supper?
In the past, Dr Douma says, this was generally the case. Reference was, and sometimes still is, made to Paul's admonition in 1 Cor 11:29:
"For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgement upon himself"
and this is worked out as follows: the intellectually handicapped cannot discern the body, for this demands a level of intellectual insight which is beyond them. And so they ought not to come to the Lord's table. Dr Douma points out that Paul directed this admonition not to people who lacked intellectual knowledge, but to those whose behaviour was completely at odds with what they knew about the Body of Christ. Their actions were selfish, loveless and divisive. Anyone who behaves like that fails to "discern the body". Otherwise, they would have known what sharing, and practicing communion, means.
Dr Douma continues: "I'd like to point to something remarkable: We believe that our mentally handicapped members should come to church, every Sunday, twice if possible. Clearly, we think that going to church is important for them, too. Some of them ask if they can join in with the Holy Supper. That's wonderful, and moving... Intellectually, they may not grasp the full meaning of what they are doing, but that need not matter. They will not be able to evaluate the sermon either. Still, we want them to come to church.
They ought to be there, they belong to the household of faith. But then they ought to be there at the Lord's Supper table as well: if they can eat and drink, sit still in church and behave reverently during the worship service. The unity of Word and Sacrament is sufficient reason to allow these children at the Lord's table, no less than their fellow members, who have the same age but normal intellect.
On a purely intellectual level, such handicapped members will hardly be able to "discern the body". They are only children in understanding, but only children in wickedness as well. We need not be afraid that they will defile the Lord's table by causing schisms, preaching heresies, or promoting party spirit within the congregation, such as Paul had to rebuke the Corinthians about."
A number of readers responded to Dr Douma's first article. He elaborates, in a second article, as follows:
There are intellectually disabled members among us who could not recount anything meaningful about any fundamental point of our confessions. And still they believe, in their simplicity. Their parents, and others who know them well can see that. Faith, the gift of the Spirit of God, is present in their hearts. They have knowledge of their sins, even if they could never learn what the Heidelberg Catechism says about sin. They know that Christ died for them on Golgotha, even if they can reproduce little or nothing of what our Confessions say about incarnation, righteousness, mercy or satisfaction. With them it's different. Their "doctrine" has to be inferred from their "lift". How often haven't I heard intellectually disabled persons spontaneously and wholeheartedly answer 'Yes!" when they were asked: do you love the Lord Jesus? They know that the Saviour died for their sins. And they also experience their own struggle against sin.
...A handicapped young man said to me once: "Do you think I will go to heaven?" "Well," I answered, "do you believe in the Lord Jesus?" "Yes," he said, "but I swear sometimes." I replied, "You have to fight against that." "I do," he said, "but I can't help myself" I suggested that he should pray, that the Lord would help him through the Holy Spirit. "What shall we read?" I asked. "From Revelation 21, about the new heaven and the new earth." Why this passage? "Well, then I will be good again."
Many of our disabled brothers and sisters would not be able to express their faith as was done here, but still they could attend the Lord's Supper. As a minimum, we should expect that expressions of faith, of knowledge of sin, and of love for our Saviour should be present. If the disability is so severe, that even these expressions are not there, then there is no need to consider participation in the Lord's Supper either."
Dr Douma's conclusion is:
...how much intellectual knowledge is required? I would reply: very little. Even if they can say little or nothing about the Trinity, Providence, Christ's satisfaction, the Church, or whatever, there is a lot we can say about them. They have been received in the communion of Christ, they show in a simple way that they truly believe, and they will certainly not defile the Lord's table in ways people with a normal intellect may do. To prevent misunderstanding: ... They are sinners like the rest of us. Those of us who live and work with them, will know that. But we know that the Lord's Supper is there for sinners. Shouldn't it be there for such "simple" sinners as well?
That's why I plead that our adult intellectually disabled members, those who attend the church services, be given generous access to the celebration of the Lord's Supper.
Children at the Lord's Supper? No.
These children at the Lord's Supper? Yes.