The short answer: if they’re baptized, yes.
The long answer is a little…well, longer.
We know that the very first church was largely made up of adult Christians, and that though whole families were sometimes baptized together (for instance, Acts 16:33), the norm was adult baptism after some time of preparation.
The flow looked like this: teach them about the faith, and then baptize them into the faith.
Baptism, then, was entrance into the church, and entrance into full participation in the church.
The practice of infant baptism began early on in the life of the church, with both Tertullian (~200’s) and Augustine (~400’s) making appeals for infants to be baptized. With the spread of Christianity in both the Eastern and Western world, along with developing theologies around salvation, original sin, heaven, and hell, the practice became normalized, with instruction happening later rather than earlier.
This is how we’ve arrived at the current normalized rite in Roman, Orthodox, and mainline Protestant traditions: baptize them into the faith, and then teach them about the faith over time, confirming that faith in a separate, but connected, rite.
At a typical church service in the first church, an adult seeking baptism would come for the beginning portion of the service: the hymns, readings, and homily. Hearing the word would work faith in the person, stirring the Spirit in them. They’d leave just before communion, with the baptized community participating in the love-feast together.
The reason they’d leave just before communion is because the only requirement to receive the sacrament was baptism.
And it still is today.
So, any baptized Christian can receive communion, regardless of age.
Why, then, did we start the practice of a “First Communion?” Well, in the absence of a working theology, we sometimes get localized practices that peddle themselves as universal, but are really not.
When did you first take communion? Some of you might have taken it as part of the Confirmation service. Some of you probably started taking it after a class of sorts, around 10 or 11 years old. I started taking it when I was 6 years old…because that’s when my church allowed me to start taking it.
These localized practices are often the product of tradition rather than theology. They aren’t bad practices, they just lack some intentionality. Because, honestly, the Sacrament is 99% mystical promise and 1% elements, so while a class can tell you how to hold your hands, provide you with some history, and explain to you the why’s and what’s of the rite, it can never explain the how’s of the rite to you. The how of the rite remains a mystery to be held and pondered and explored at every age, in every time of your life.
The cognitive difference between a 4 year old and a 14 year old will present itself when it comes to math, but not when it comes to mystery. In fact, when it comes to mystery, the 4 year old probably has the advantage.
The evolving practice at Good Shepherd is this: any baptized Christian can take communion, at any age, if the family agrees to it. Some will choose to start right away, while others may choose not to. But every year, from 4 years to 4th Grade, we’ll host a “Communion Retreat” in Lent (and offer a class for adults, too!) that will invite people into the mystery with age-appropriate lessons, with 4th Graders honoring the milestone of Communion participation at the Maundy Thursday service. For some 4th Graders, that will be their very first time taking the Sacrament. For others, they’ll be honoring a meal they’ve had for years.
Regardless, it is special, mostly because of who God is, not because of who we are.
“But Pastor,” you say, “should I allow my kid to take communion?”
My answer is pretty simple: when they start to reach for it, something is stirring inside them. I’d err on the side of grace here, but that’s me. It’s up to you.
Trust me, they get it as much as you do. And if you doubt that, stop by my office sometime and explain the mystery to me.
Because even I need reminding.