The Excommunication of Ronald Reagan
A few disclaimers are in order. First of all, this is probably the only article by Gary North I will ever repost, and I endorse none of his political writings. Second, no disrespect is intended to the memory of Ronald Reagan; I may take issue with his politics, but mocking someone with Alzheimer’s would be despicable. Finally: my reason for posting this is to highlight the relationship between salvation, grace, understanding, and what it means to be a member of Christ.
My own tradition, Eastern Orthodoxy, baptizes and communes infants as full members of the community of faith, in expectation that the young person will grow into the faith as it is taught and lived around him. However, most other Christian traditions, while they may baptize infants or not, reserve the Eucharist for adults. In this article I think the author brings up some meaningful questions that arise from our various traditions’ practices of Communion.
THE EXCOMMUNICATION OF RONALD REAGAN: A LITERARY INVESTIGATION
by Gary North
Ronald Reagan is afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease. Most of us fear this disease as we grow older because the older we get, the more likely we will be its victims.
Mr. Reagan is a member in good standing in Bel Air Presbyterian church (PCUSA), and has been for decades. The theological question arises: Should he be allowed to take the Lord’s Supper?
Why should this question arise? Because of the centuries-old tradition in Presbyterianism that anyone who does not understand what the theological meaning of the Lord’s Supper is not allowed to partake. This principle is almost universally applied to young children. It is also applied to people with Down’s Syndrome.
Why isn’t it applied to Alzheimer’s victims? One possible reason: “The victim’s correct understanding years ago still counts judicially.” But this does not answer these theological questions:
- Why does someone who doesn’t understand today allowed to partake?
- How can we be sure the person was ever truly saved, since confession of faith is judicial evidence of such salvation?
- Isn’t a participant supposed to examine himself before partaking, as Paul requires in I Corinthians 11?
The fact that pastors prefer not to deal publicly with this problem doesn’t make it go away.
What about you? Will you be allowed to partake? If not, doesn’t that mean you have been excommunicated? Excommunication is defined as cut off from Holy Communion, i.e., the Lord’s Supper. Not only must you worry about Alzheimer’s, are you also to worry about being unofficially excommunicated?
To help you understand the theological issues in this controversial topic, I offer this hypothetical dialogue, which would never take place in a congregation of the Presbyterian Church in the USA. But it might happen in your congregation with someone less famous than Mr. Reagan. If it wouldn’t, be grateful, but you owe it to yourself find out why it wouldn’t. If it wouldn’t happen mainly because Ronald Reagan is an important person, then you are at risk unless you are an equally important person. So, you might consider showing this essay to your pastor. See if he disagrees with it, and why.
The following discussion is between Reagan’s pastor and his legal guardian at the time of the fictitious incident.
* * * * * * * * *
Pastor: I have invited you to my office to discuss the matter of Mr. Reagan’s membership in this congregation.
Guardian: Is there something wrong?
Pastor: Well, frankly, there is. Mr. Reagan has Alzheimer’s disease.
Guardian: Yes. He has had it for some time.
Pastor: I suppose the elders should not have waited so long to deal with this.
Guardian: Deal with what?
Pastor: The fact that Mr. Reagan no longer understands theology.
Guardian: What has his understanding of theology got to do with his membership?
Pastor: He is a communicant member. Or, I should say, he was a communicant member. He is no longer.
Guardian: What do you mean?
Pastor: The elders voted him a non-communing member at last week’s meeting.
Guardian: On what authority?
Pastor: On the authority of Book of Order.
Guardian: Where does it say that you can refuse to offer the Lord’s Supper to him without a trial?
Pastor: Well, it doesn’t actually say this, but we posses this authority.
Guardian: On what basis?
Pastor: Because we are authorized to determine at what age a child is eligible for communing membership. The Book of Order is quite clear about this: G-5.0100, “The Meaning of Membership, Section c.”
Guardian: He is not a child.
Pastor: On the contrary, he is a child. He has the mentality of a toddler.
Guardian: But he is 91 years old.
Pastor: In years, yes. In mental ability, he is about three years old.
Guardian: But baptized adults are entitled to the Lord’s Supper.
Pastor: Mental adults are entitled to the Lord’s Supper. Mental children are not.
Guardian: I have never heard such an interpretation before.
Pastor: That’s because the elders of this congregation have just discovered this principle.
Guardian: But it’s not part of Presbyterian law.
Pastor: It’s part of a well-established traditional interpretation of Presbyterian theology. The basis of the prohibition against toddlers’ taking communion has always been this: the toddlers’ inability to understand theology. Toddlers don’t understand what communion means. Neither does Mr. Reagan.
Guardian: You’re saying that access to the Lord’s Supper is based on a person’s IQ.
Pastor: Well, we wouldn’t want to put it that way.
Guardian: But that’s the implication of what you’re saying. “No brains, no communion.”
Pastor: Well, yes, I suppose that is our position.
Guardian: He understood communion before he got Alzheimer’s.
Pastor: But he doesn’t understand any longer.
Guardian: But doesn’t his intelligence carry over legally?
Pastor: How? He doesn’t understand the meaning of communion. So, he cannot search his heart before he takes communion, as Paul requires in I Corinthians 11.
Guardian: Well, I can do this for him, now that I’m his legal guardian and trustee. So can the elders, if I fail in my duty.
Pastor: I’m afraid your argument doesn’t apply. If we accepted its logic in your case, we would have to accept it for toddlers and infants.
Pastor: Because it’s the same argument, judicially speaking. You’re saying that a legal guardian who is a member of this congregation and is mentally competent can judge the moral state of his or her mentally incompetent ward. If we were to accept your argument regarding Mr. Reagan, we would have to accept it for the parents of every toddler. The parents would say that the child has not done anything so evil since the date of the last communion that the child should be denied access to the Lord’s Supper.
Guardian: But he hasn’t done anything deserving of excommunication.
Pastor: But he has.
Guardian: What has he done?
Pastor: He got Alzheimer’s.
Guardian: Are you saying that a disease is grounds for excommunication?
Pastor: This disease is grounds for exclusion from the Lord’s Table. Also any other disease or head injury that lowers a person’s IQ to the level of a toddler.
Guardian: Then contracting such a disease is the same, judicially speaking, as committing adultery.
Pastor: No, I’m not saying that.
Guardian: No, I guess you aren’t. That’s because someone can repent from committing adultery. A person can’t raise his IQ. You’re saying that Alzheimer’s is a legal basis for permanently excommunicating a person, but adultery isn’t.
Pastor: Well, now you put it that way, I agree with you. I hadn’t thought of that.
Guardian: There is a whole lot that you haven’t thought of.
Pastor: Like what?
Guardian: Like the fact that anyone can get Alzheimer’s. Like the fact that you are condemning in advance millions of old people to excommunication. Like the fact that you are bringing despair to millions of spouses who are married to people with Alzheimer’s. You are also raising a specter of separation from the Lord’s Table to every Presbyterian, who must now fear the day that he will be treated the way you are treating Mr. Reagan, should they contract this terrible disease.
Pastor: Well, that’s what we tell parents of toddlers.
Guardian: Parents of toddlers have hope that their children will get smarter as they grow older. Their pain is bearable, especially because your interpretation is backed up by tradition.
Pastor: Parents of low IQ children have to live with this despair, and it’s permanent. They don’t complain. They know that Presbyterians have always accepted this risk as a cost of being Presbyterians.
Guardian: But why should this be? Why should you treat Down’s Syndrome victims as sinners who are forever cut off from the communion table?
Pastor: Because they are stupid.
Guardian: You mean intelligence is a matter of saving grace?
Pastor: Oh, no. We wouldn’t say that.
Guardian: You already have. You are saying a lot worse. You are saying that having a low IQ is worse than committing adultery, because repentance is possible for adulterers.
Pastor: Being excluded from the communion table isn’t the same as excommunication.
Guardian: Really? How is it different?
Pastor: Because you have to be convicted of a sin in order to be officially excommunicated.
Guardian: But what’s the difference in the objective result? In both cases, the person is cut off from the Lord’s Table. Excommunication is considered the supreme negative sanction that the church can impose. Why isn’t it a negative sanction for a Down’s Syndrome child to be cut off from the Lord’s Supper?
Pastor: Because there has been no trial.
Guardian: What kind of view of the Lord’s Supper are you teaching here? Are you people Baptists?
Pastor: That is a terrible thing to accuse anyone of being, unless he’s a Baptist.
Guardian: Well, that’s the view of the Lord’s Supper that you’re defending. You’re saying that the Lord’s Supper is one thing for one person, and another thing for someone else. It’s whatever a person thinks it is. It has no judicially valid authority in its own right.
Pastor: I don’t follow you.
Guardian: If being denied access to the Lord’s Supper is a negative sanction for an adulterer, then it’s also a negative sanction for a Down’s Syndrome victim.
Pastor: But this isn’t a negative sanction for the Down’s Syndrome victim.
Guardian: Why not?
Pastor: Because there has been no trial.
Guardian: There doesn’t need to be a trial. My point is that the same negative sanction applies to both the Down’s Syndrome victim and the adulterer. If the sanction is the same for one, it’s the same for the other. It’s not just what the participants think it is. The Westminster Confession of Faith is clear about this. It’s right here in Chapter XXI. Let me read it to you.
These sacraments, both of the Old Testament and of the New, were instituted by God not only to make a visible distinction between his people and those who were without the Covenant, but also to exercise the faith of his children and, by participation of these sacraments, to seal in their hearts the assurance of his promise, and of that most blessed conjunction, union, and society, which the chosen have with their Head, Christ Jesus. And so we utterly condemn the vanity of those who affirm the sacraments to be nothing else than naked and bare signs. No, we assuredly believe that by Baptism we are engrafted into Christ Jesus, to be made partakers of his righteousness, by which our sins are covered and remitted, and also that in the Supper rightly used, Christ Jesus is so joined with us that he becomes the very nourishment and food of our souls. . . .
Therefore, if anyone slanders us by saying that we affirm or believe the sacraments to be symbols and nothing more, they are libelous and speak against the plain facts.
Pastor: I’m not saying that the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper has no independent power on its own authority. I’m not a “memorial only” theologian.
Guardian: Then why do you deny access to the Lord’s table for a member in good standing?
Pastor: Because a member in good standing has to have an IQ over 80.
Pastor: So he can understand what’s going on.
Guardian: You think a Down’s Syndrome person doesn’t understand that he is not being allowed to participate, when everyone else in the church is taking the elements except those people nobody talks to — adulterers, thieves, and child molesters?
Pastor: Yes, that’s what I’m saying, at least the victims of extreme Down’s Syndrome.
Guardian: His parents understand, and they act on his behalf. They can decide that he has not committed an excommunicable sin. You should support their decision.
Pastor: They don’t have the authority to act on his behalf. He has to be responsible. He has to act on his own authority.
Guardian: I was right. You’re a Baptist.
Pastor: I deeply resent that accusation.
Guardian: I apologize. You’re only half-Baptist. If a parent who is a member in good standing can act on behalf of the child when it comes time to baptize the child, then why not allow the parent to make the same representative decision in the case of the Lord’s Supper?
Pastor: Because that’s what Presbyterianism has done for centuries.
Guardian: So, you’re saying that Presbyterians are half- Baptists. Presbyterians draw a judicial line at the Lord’s Table, and say to parents, “Your authority ends here.” Then you treat their young children just as you treat excommunicated adults. Meanwhile, the Baptists stand on the sidelines and taunt you. “You don’t really believe in all that representation stuff. You hold the same view that we do regarding the Lord’s Supper. There has to be an age of accountability. The difference is, we take baptism as seriously as you take the Lord’s Supper. We close access to baptism to toddlers and morons and people with Alzheimer’s.”
Pastor: But the child isn’t missing out. Not really.
Guardian: Of course he is missing out. The Confession says that “in the Supper rightly used, Christ Jesus is so joined with us that he becomes the very nourishment and food of our souls.” I ask you: Is it a positive sanction to be able to take the Lord’s Supper?
Pastor: I think I see where you’re going with this.
Guardian: Good. Then you have not yet developed Alzheimer’s.
Pastor: You’re trying to get me to say that the Lord’s Supper is a means of grace or something like that.
Guardian: Well, isn’t that what answer 96 of the Shorter Catechism says? “The Lord’s Supper is a sacrament, wherein, by giving and receiving bread and wine, according to Christ’s appointment, his death is shewed forth; and the worthy receivers are, not after a corporal and carnal manner, but by faith, made partakers of his body and blood, with all his benefits, to their spiritual nourishment, and growth in grace.”
Pastor: Yes, but answers 96 and 97 say that these benefits are limited to worthy receivers. “It is required of them that would worthily partake of the Lord’s Supper, that they examine themselves of their knowledge to discern the Lord’s body, of their faith to feed upon him, of their repentance, love, and new obedience; lest, coming unworthily, they eat and drink judgment to themselves.” Toddlers, morons, and Alzheimer’s victims are not worthy.
Guardian: Nobody is worthy except Jesus Christ.
Pastor: Of course, of course. But there are worthy members and unworthy members.
Guardian: Is an infant worthy?
Pastor: That’s a trick question.
Guardian: Only for Presbyterians with tricky answers.
Pastor: An infant is worthy to be baptized, but not to take the Lord’s Supper.
Guardian: What is the difference?
Pastor: The judicial authority of his parents. In the sacrament of baptism, the parents are worthy on his behalf, but not in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
Guardian: Where does it say that in the Confession or the Catechisms?
Pastor: It doesn’t. It’s implied.
Guardian: Where does it say that in the Bible?
Pastor: It doesn’t. It’s implied.
Pastor: Where does it say that Alzheimer’s victims are unworthy?
Pastor: It doesn’t. It’s implied.
Guardian: So, the elders of this congregation added together a series of implications, and they concluded that Mr. Reagan just had to be excommunicated.
Pastor: I wish you wouldn’t use that word.
Guardian: Then what word would you use? If being officially denied access to the Lord’s Supper isn’t excommunication, what is it?
Pastor: We like to think of it as “safety-first righteousness.”
Guardian: It’s more like “righteousness, emeritus.”
Pastor: Mr. Reagan is still righteous, in a childish sort of way.
Guardian: Toddlers are righteous in an Alzheimer’s sort of way.
Pastor: That’s it, exactly.
Guardian: Infants are baptized in an Alzheimer’s sort of way.
Pastor: No, that’s completely different. Infants are baptized in a judicially representative way. Their parents speak on their behalf.
Guardian: Then the sacramental issue is the competence and judicial standing of the parents.
Pastor: Yes, but only with respect to infant baptism, not young child communion.
Guardian: Then toddlers are denied access to the Lord’s Table in an Alzheimer’s sort of way.
Pastor: Very well put.
Guardian: What about an Alzheimer’s victim who commits adultery?
Pastor: What about him?
Guardian: Is this an excommunicable sin?
Guardian: But what if he didn’t know that the other person was not his spouse? After all, he has Alzheimer’s.
Pastor: Well, in that case, it wouldn’t be an excommunicable sin.
Guardian: But it would be for the woman who deceived him.
Pastor: Yes, but not for him.
Guardian: Then the only difference between the adulterer and the Alzheimer’s victim is that the adulterer knew what she was doing.
Guardian: Then the moral and judicial difference between the two kinds of sexual contact outside of marriage is that the deceiver, who lures the Alzheimer’s victim into adultery, is legally responsible.
Pastor: I don’t like where this line of reasoning is headed.
Guardian: I’ll bet you don’t.
Pastor: You’re trying to get me to say that the person with legal authority in the case of adultery is the mentally competent decision-maker, not the mentally incompetent person who obeys the words of the person he believes is in authority.
Guardian: You have got it, exactly.
Pastor: And then you’re going to go from the representative authority of the decision-making adulterer to the representative authority of a decision-making parent.
Guardian: You have got it, exactly.
Pastor: You’re trying to make access to the Lord’s Table as much a matter of representative parental authority as baptism is.
Guardian: You have got it, exactly.
Pastor: Well, I’m not going to say that.
Guardian: Why not?
Pastor: Because it doesn’t sound Presbyterian to me.
Guardian: Neither does excommunicating a person with Alzheimer’s.
Pastor: But that is the logical implication of Presbyterianism.
Guardian: It is the logical implication of a particular Presbyterian tradition. But it is not the logical implication of the doctrine of parental representation in the Presbyterian doctrine of baptism.
Pastor: You’re trying to confuse me.
Guardian: Not too difficult a task.
Pastor: You’re implying that Presbyterianism is theologically schizophrenic: that its doctrine of representation regarding parental authority in baptism is in conflict with the Presbyterian tradition of denying parental authority in the Lord’s Supper.
Guardian: I’m not implying it. I’m inferring it. They are in conflict.
Pastor: You want me to believe that Mr. Reagan should not be excluded from the Lord’s Table even though he has the mind of a toddler or a Down’s Syndrome child.
Pastor: But if I drew that conclusion, I would have to open the Lord’s Table to toddlers and Down’s Syndrome victims.
Pastor: And all this is based on the theology of judicial representation.
Guardian: Yes. That’s an important Presbyterian doctrine. Let’s begin with Adam.
Pastor: Let’s not.
Guardian: Then let’s begin with the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ.
Pastor: Let’s not.
Guardian: Then where should we begin?
Pastor: With Presbyterian tradition.
Guardian: You want to substitute ecclesiastical tradition for the Bible and covenant theology?
Pastor: I didn’t say that.
Guardian: But that’s what is implied by what you did say. You are saying that an ecclesiastical tradition that is inconsistent at this point with the doctrine of judicial representation — covenant theology, in other words — carries more authority than covenant theology.
Pastor: Tradition is important.
Guardian: It isn’t that important. Or was Luther wrong in 1517? Was Calvin wrong in 1536? Was the Reformation a mistake?
Pastor: You’re making this more complicated than it is.
Guardian: No, you’re making it more complicated than it is. The doctrine of representation is not all that complicated. Adam sinned on our behalf. Jesus Christ died on our behalf. Parents speak on behalf of their infants. If the concept of “on behalf” is abandoned, then Christianity loses its judicial character. And Presbyterianism is nothing if not judicial.
Pastor: You’re trying to persuade me to begin with the doctrine of judicial representation.
Guardian: No, I’m trying to persuade you to end up with the doctrine of judicial representation that you officially begin with as a Presbyterian. You keep ending up a Baptist. If Mr. Reagan had wanted to be a Baptist, he would have joined a Baptist church. There are surely a lot more voters who are Baptists than there are Presbyterians. He took Presbyterianism seriously. I’m asking you to take Presbyterianism seriously.
Pastor: I’ll have to think about this.
Guardian: Good. I would suggest that you and the elders put his excommunication on hold until you make up your mind.
Pastor: This will have to go to a committee.
Guardian: Somehow, that does not come as a surprise.
Two decades ago, Rev. Ray Sutton and James Jordan each wrote a brief paper, “Presuppositions on Paedocommunion,” and “Theses on Paedocommunion,” respectively. That’s a fancy word for young child communion.
The same judicial is at stake as with Reagan. If a child can be lawfully separated from the Lord’s Supper merely because he doesn’t understand it, what about Down’s Syndrome victims and Alzheimer’s victims?
The two authors concluded that the Lord’s Supper should be open to young children. Their conclusion was accepted by the Reformed Episcopal Church, which Sutton later joined. It has been ignored by most Presbyterians and other Protestants. Here are their articles on the subject. They download slowly.
These papers were circulated widely, but rarely referred to publicly. They never became the focus of a formal debate in Presbyterian circles.
In 1983, David Chilton wrote an essay in dialogue form, “Conversations With Nathan.”
It covered the same theological issue. It was even more ignored than the Sutton-Jordan papers. I imitated Chilton’s educational approach in my essay: a dialogue.
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