Everyone at the Feast:  Welcoming People with Intellectual Disabilities to the Lord’s Table – Ministry Spot

August Ministry Spot

Is there room at the Lord’s Table for persons with profound intellectual disabilities? According to the practice of our Reformed Churches, participation in the Lord’s Supper is supposed to follow a person’s profession of faith. A crucial element of one’s profession of faith involves acknowledging and intellectually agreeing with the doctrines of the gospel. The dilemma, from the perspective of a church eldership, is whether such persons can articulate the kind of faith that demonstrates they possess a “true interest in Christ” and which “desires to be found in Christ” (WLC, 172). Moreover, should we expect such persons to make a public profession of faith prior to being admitted to the Lord’s Table? Suppose their intellectual disability prevents them from making a profession of faith. Should intellectually disabled persons be permanently disqualified from coming to the Lord’s Supper?

Let me state unequivocally from the outset that I firmly believe individuals with intellectual disabilities should be warmly welcomed to take part in the Lord’s Supper. The following theological and practical issues need to be considered.

(1) It is important to remember that the election and effectual calling of a person is solely “of God’s free and special grace alone, not from anything foreseen in man, who is altogether passive therein” (WCF, 10.2). Thus “elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ, through the Spirit, who works when, and where, and how he pleases: so also are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word” (WCF, 10.3). This means that God’s elect children who have profound intellectual disabilities are regenerated and saved when, where, and how God’s pleases, even though they may not be able to outwardly articulate the faith that is a gift of God’s grace and a work of the Holy Spirit in their hearts. Thus, they should not be excluded from the Lord’s Table solely because they cannot outwardly articulate what is nonetheless true of them experientially, namely, their love for God and faith in Christ. 

(2) This, of course, raises a very practical question: Given that the sacrament belongs to Christ, and it is the privilege and responsibility of the elders of the local church session to discern whether an individual seeking to partake in the Lord’s Supper genuinely holds a “true interest in Christ” (WLC, 172), how can they effectively do so when dealing with individuals who have profound intellectual disabilities? It is important to point out that there are varying expressions of faith in Scripture (e.g., Mk 5:28-34; 9:24; Lk 23:42; Acts 2:37). This indicates that elders should be receptive to a broader range of expressions of faith. The necessary adaptation that elders must make is in how they communicate with individuals with intellectual disabilities. Elders should engage with them at a level where effective communication is possible. These individuals might express their faith in ways unfamiliar to the elders, who must avoid letting this unfamiliarity hinder their participation. People can communicate through various means beyond oral language, and in some cases, a family member or caregiver can assist in facilitating the conversation, similar to how a translator conveys a message when someone speaks a different language. We can welcome those who come to the Lord’s Table hungry to commune with him, expressing their faith in their own ability-appropriate ways. As Canon 6, Chapter 12, “Of the Lord’s Supper” in The Discipline of the Reformed Churches of France (1559) suggests:

A man who is unable to speak and hear, yet demonstrates his piety and religious devotion through evident signs, gestures, and actions, may be welcomed to partake in the Lord’s Table. This is provided that the Church has knowledge of his righteous life and can ascertain his faith and genuine understanding of God. (This can also be found in Book 2, Title 4, “Of the Lord’s Supper,” in Collections & Observations Concerning the Worship, Discipline & Government of the Church of Scotland, 1770.) (I have modernised the English.)

(3) The 1559 statement of the Reformed Churches of France highlights another important consideration: testimony to the genuineness of a person’s faith can be provided by those who know the person best, typically close family members. I recently came across a video on YouTube produced by a congregation with exactly this intention. The video showcased a mother, other caregivers, and young members of the congregation, all sharing their observations of the faith life of a young girl who has a severe intellectual disability. The video served as her profession of faith and a public acknowledgement that, as far as they could discern, she possessed a “true interest in Christ” (WLC, 172). Withholding the Lord’s Supper from those we believe Christ has accepted but who cannot outwardly articulate the faith God has given them results in the church excluding the most vulnerable in our world. Elders should consider this question: “Would Jesus turn away someone who desires to partake in this gospel feast but whose disability may make them appear less qualified than others who are invited to participate?” Mark 10:13-16 and Luke 14:21-23 make it clear that he wouldn’t. When contemplating the request of a person with intellectual disabilities to partake in the Lord’s Supper, the elders should lean towards grace and generosity.

(4) People with intellectual disabilities often prefer more concrete learning tasks. As individuals, we naturally undergo a cognitive evolution from concrete to abstract thinking. However, for those with intellectual disabilities, this developmental progression may be hindered or limited. Consequently, facilitating their comprehension of abstract concepts can be achieved by providing tangible experiences that engage their senses, encompassing sight, touch, and taste.  In the Westminster Shorter Catechism, we read that “a sacrament is a holy ordinance instituted by Christ, wherein, by sensible signs, Christ, and the benefits of the new covenant, are represented, sealed, and applied to believers” (92). The sacraments are “sensible signs,” which means they engage all of our outward senses. Through baptism, we can feel the water being poured and witness its symbolic significance, while in the Lord’s Supper, we touch the bread and the cup, smell the wine, taste the elements, and see the communal participation of our fellow believers, creating a tangible, physical manifestation of the gospel within our worship service as we faithfully partake in the sacraments. In essence, the sacraments communicate Christ in a manner accessible to individuals with disabilities. As the Heidelberg Catechism says (LD 28, Q75:

First, as surely as I see with my eyes the bread of the Lord broken for me and the cup given to me, so surely his body was offered and broken for me and his blood poured out for me on the cross. Second, as surely as I receive from the hand of him who serves, and taste with my mouth the bread and cup of the Lord, given me as sure signs of Christ’s body and blood, so surely he nourishes and refreshes my soul for eternal life with his crucified body and poured‑out blood.

(5) Including individuals with intellectual disabilities at the Lord’s Table enables the congregation to recognise that we require all the vastly diverse parts of Christ’s body if we are to truly function as the body of Christ. We need to ask ourselves: What is lost to the community of faith in our refusal to share the Lord’s Supper with intellectually disabled people? Answer: An essential part of the body is lost! Their presence in the community of believers is essential to our coming to understand more of who God is, who we are, and who we are to be as the body of Christ and so they should be afforded special care in the body.  The apostle Paul writes in 1 Cor 12:22-25: “The parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty … But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.” Welcoming God’s children with dementia, traumatic brain injury, and severe intellectual disabilities to the Lord’s Table can be a powerful way in which we collectively image the love of God.

(6) This means that the elders need to take special care to make sure those with intellectual disabilities can participate in the Lord’s Supper in meaningful and ability-appropriate ways.  It means that we need to take the time to get to know and understand the individual. We need to consider how they might perceive and take part in the administration of the Lord’s Supper. Can they physically come forward, hold, pass, eat, or swallow? Canon 7, Chapter 12, “Of the Lord’s Supper” in The Discipline of the Reformed Churches of France (1559) is again very suggestive of how we can help such people celebrate the Lord’s Supper in ability-appropriate ways:

During the Lord’s Supper, those who are unable to consume wine will be offered bread instead. They will express their sincere protest, clarifying that their abstention is not due to disrespect. Additionally, they will make every effort to participate, bringing the cup close to their mouth and touching it with their lips. This approach ensures that all participants can partake in the ritual without causing offense or misunderstanding. (Also in Book 2, Title 4, “Of the Lord’s Supper,” in Collections & Observations Concerning the Worship, Discipline & Government of the Church of Scotland, 1770.) (I have modernised the English.)

Elders, make yourselves available for anyone who needs help holding the cup or picking up the small piece of bread and please make sure they have generous access to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. As we gather around the Lord’s Table, joining together to partake of this gospel feast, let us remember Christ’s transformative work within us and how he shapes us into a new people—a people who recognize the beauty and value in our most vulnerable members, a beauty that the world cannot fully comprehend. My hope is for more Reformed churches to engage in these crucial discussions, delving beyond pragmatic concerns, and instead, undertaking serious theological reflection on the essence of being the Church, baptizing, partaking in the Lord’s Supper, and valuing the worth of every individual among us.