The Joy of Age- and Ability- Appropriate Obedience
Published by John D. Witvliet
Professor of Worship
Director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship
A key way the church disciples believers is through worship. Reformed Christians have an especially high view of preaching and the sacraments, and on the way God disciples us through them. In this article, John Witvliet, chair of the Faith Formation Committee of the Christian Reformed Church, explores the committee’s latest thinking on discipleship and how it relates to participating in the Lord’s Supper.
Commands as Gifts
Ministries of faith formation and discipleship rest, at least in part, on a profoundly countercultural conviction: the notion that God’s commands are gifts. Psalm 119 offers an epic account of gratitude for God’s law, with memorable phrases of astonishing enthusiasm: “I delight in the way of your decrees” (v. 14), “your statutes have been my songs” (v. 54), “how I love your law” (v. 97).
While that language can sound exaggerated, there are common experiences that hint at this joy. Think of parents who are grateful for strictly enforced safety practices at a community swimming pool or summer camp. Or patients who see their dentist washing her hands before filling a cavity during flu season. Or jazz musicians who discover that their fellow improvisers really do know the chord patterns that hold the music together. Or drivers who see a new stop sign on a dangerous intersection. Well-formed laws, habits, and practices contribute to human flourishing and enable rather than restrict true freedom. They are proverbs offered in a form that commands attention: wise is the dentist with clean hands, the driver who obeys traffic signals, and the camp counselor who knows CPR.
For this reason, wise parents and teachers insist on both giving and enforcing commands. They also insist on explaining why. They help children see why it is good for parents to remind them to sleep enough, to wear warm clothes in wintertime, and to refrain from playground gossip. Wise parents and teachers also know that when it comes to commands, one’s tone of voice means everything. Failing to be firm robs children of a sense of the importance of obedience. Failing to be kind robs children of any awareness that commands are good. As important as human laws are, God’s laws are the surest, most life-giving commands of all, sweeter than honey and more precious than gold (Ps. 19:10). They are expressions of grace that lead us to true freedom.
Yet too often destructive practices set in around biblical commands. We treat them as onerous burdens. We bark them out in a harsh tone of voice. We imagine that true freedom is found in setting them aside, not realizing that this worldly kind of freedom leads us to be fettered to all kinds of addictions, vices, and miseries. When these tendencies are expressed in a culture that finds laws and obedience to be utterly repugnant, we wind up with a potent recipe for undercutting a huge part of the gospel of grace.
For while the grace of divine forgiveness is astonishing, that is only the beginning of the story. God adds to the gift of forgiveness the gifts of biblical instruction and the Spiritgiven motivation to follow that instruction. This means that law-giving and law-minding are Pentecostal experiences. They are not opposed to the work of the Holy Spirit. Rather, they are a trademark of how the Holy Spirit works. In this Spirit-led way of life, “a long obedience in the same direction” is not a threat, but a promise.
Intergenerational Practices, Age-Appropriate Participation
Commands by themselves are not complete. They need to be willingly and joyfully obeyed—and not just occasionally, but as a regular part of community life. That is why a sermon or book about hospitality is no match for a community with habitual practices of gossip and inhospitality. Conversely, a stray cynical comment about a community’s lack of generosity is not likely to resonate in a place where generosity abounds. While words are necessary, practices always speak louder.
This past summer, I had the privilege of visiting a congregation in which there is a culture of volunteer service. Twenty-five years ago, one member of the congregation decided to volunteer for a three-month disaster relief project. Since then there has been a constant stream of volunteers from the congregation. No wonder, then, that the church youth group scheduled an all-Saturday mid-August service project to help a family in a nearby town.
Participation in obedient practices best begins at a young age. Parents of toddlers are not well-advised to wait to teach their children not to steal or not to tell lies or to honor their parents in the Lord. These commands need to be practiced at the earliest possible age. Violinists and basketball players who learn bad hand position early on could spend years unlearning their habits. The same is true for truth-tellers and worshipers: age-appropriate obedience early on makes all the difference!
Our practices of obedient participation grow with us throughout our life. We never graduate from the school of divine obedience, nor would we ever want to. For with God’s commands, we never exhaust all the possibilities for becoming more truthful, respectful, and generous.
Further, this joyful journey of obedience is open to persons with a wide range of capacities. God’s commands come to each of us with the invitation to obey them with our full selves. Those whom society labels as “persons with disabilities” may face some limitations in obeying some commands, but they may also have profound capacities to obey other commands more deeply than others.
This spectrum of possibilities for obedience might be summed up in the phrase “age- and ability-appropriate practice.” All of us are called to “age- and ability-appropriate obedience” in the context of Christian communities.
A Different Approach to Children at the Lord’s Supper
Over the past two years, the Faith Formation Committee of the CRC has been listening to many parents, pastors, church school teachers, scholars, and other voices on the topic of children’s participation at the Lord’s Supper. One recurring theme in these discussions is the tensions that set in around the Bible’s commands for participation at the table.
Past discussions about the Lord’s Supper in many denominations have rightly emphasized both that children become members of the church at baptism and that participation in the Lord’s Supper is a matter of active obedience. The first insight leads many to want to invite very young children to the table, the second leads many to insist on requiring a public profession of faith prior to participation. The resulting discussion often leads to a stalemate. Church assemblies vote 60-40 for one perspective or the other, with delegates experiencing a bit of pastoral topsy-turvy as rhetorically compelling arguments are offered on both sides.
Yet could it be that behind these split votes is a lurking sensibility that God’s commands are really more like an onerous burden than a joyful opportunity, and that they need to be saved for older children? Could this lead some of us to underemphasize these commands and others of us to treat them more like a burden than a privilege?
The key text here is 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. Paul is writing to protest the disharmony and inhospitality the Corinthians are showing in their Lord’s Supper celebrations (vv. 18, 22). Paul’s antidote to this inhospitality is a set of commands: “examine yourselves,” “discern the body,” “wait for one another.”
These commands are surely as precious as gold and as sweet as honey. “Come, examine yourself—the result will be new dependence on God and gratitude for the sheer gift of grace. Come, discern the body, and wait for each other. There is nothing more freeing than getting rid of inhospitality and putting an end to divisions within the community.” When received gratefully and obeyed, these commands protect us from inhospitality, dissension, arrogance, racism, gossip, and all kinds of cancers in the body of Christ.
Yet these commands often call to mind dour faces and furrowed brows. Several delegates to the 2008 CRC synod told the Faith Formation Committee that they had never thought about these commands as opportunities for joyful obedience, nor had they ever been invited to.
This is not to say that self-examination and discerning the body are easy, or that they shouldn’t be obeyed soberly (a sober, serious kind of joy may be the best kind of all!). There is a lot of injustice in church life and in our own hearts to discern and root out. But the invitation and the strength to do this are gifts of grace.
When we put some of the delight of Psalm 119 around these commands, then we can hardly wait to invite our children and new believers to start obeying them. We can hardly wait to challenge life-long Christians to get out of spiritual autopilot and grow in knowledge and understanding. We can hardly wait to invite persons with disabilities to participate in an ability-appropriate way. We can hardly wait to invite seekers to claim Jesus as Lord.
The Faith Formation Committee of the CRC is presenting a report on this topic for discussion at Synod 2010. A key part of its recommendation is worded this way: “All baptized members are welcome to the Lord’s Supper for age- and ability-appropriate obedience to biblical commands about participation, under the supervision of the elders. The elders have the responsibility to nurture grateful and obedient participation by providing encouragement, instruction, and accountability in the congregation.”
This approach is different from both the standard case for and the standard case against welcoming young children to the table. It will take some thinking through. My prayer is that many congregations will give time for this discussion (see helpful materials at www.crcna.org/pages/ ffc_front.cfm). However these conversations are structured, I hope many of them begin with portions of Psalm 119, and lead to new appreciation for the gift of every imperative in Scripture.
By John D. Witvliet
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