I think that I was recently accused of playing "Father Knows Best." Well, no, not me personally or specifically. But the description was intended for pastors who have admitted children to the Holy Communion at an earlier-than-LCMS-average age and apart from the rite of confirmation. As I understand the line of argument, it is evidently now okay to do this, because the Lutheran Service Book includes a "Rite of First Communion." But to do so heretofore was, again, a case of playing "Father Knows Best."
I've been puzzling over this for the past few weeks now, ever since I encountered it. I honestly don't understand the intention of this label. I am vaguely aware that there was an old, black-and-white television sitcom by the name of "Father Knows Best." I doubt that I would be able to differentiate it from "Leave It to Beaver" or "My Three Sons." Maybe avid watchers of cable t.v. would instantly be able to nod in sage agreement with the critique at hand. For my part, though, I am more than a little hazy as to what it is that pastors like myself have been "playing."
Let me go on record as being categorically opposed to pastors re-enacting episodes of old television programs. I really don't think they should be coming up with any new episodes, either. Those characters and their situations are someone else's intellectual property, and I'm sure that playing them would be a copyright violation, syndication notwithstanding. Besides, that stuff was all in black and white, which isn't very attractive, effective or successful anymore. Yet, that doesn't seem to have been the point of criticism, after all.
Maybe the point is that pastors should not be allowing fathers to teach their younger children the Catechism. Admittedly, that is a risky thing to do. Those little ones just believe whatever they're told, they learn it by rote and repeat it. Better to let pastors and professional educators confuse them with abstract object lessons. I guess if I presume to know better than that, then I am playing "Father Knows Best." The thing of it is, though, that the Holy Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions tell me that fathers are supposed to be teaching their children the faith, to be doing it early and often, and even to be insisting that their children learn it by heart, word for word.
Not only that, but then there's also this whole Fourth Commandment thing. I take it from Dr. Luther, for example, that fathers are to be honored and obeyed, even if they happen to be a bit senile and eccentric, and I suppose even if they happen to be into old television sitcoms. Fathers are neither omniscient nor infallible, but they do have their office and authority from God, which makes for pretty good credentials in my book. Unless a father is commanding what God forbids, or forbidding what God commands, I believe a child should consider that his father does know best, and leave it at that. As a pastor, I will not thwart or undermine a father's authority, unless intervention be required for the sake of saving a child from mortal peril to body or soul.
Maybe the accusation of playing "Father Knows Best" wasn't referring to our human fathers, but to pastors, our spiritual fathers in Christ. I suspect that was the point, though I'm hardly certain of it. The gist of the argument does seem to be that no one should act out of concert with the rest of the Church. In response to that, I must agree with my friend and colleague, Pastor Petersen, first of all, that it isn't possible for the whole Church simply to begin doing something "all at once." If no one ever takes the lead and the first step, then nothing would ever happen. At least in my own experience, the practice of First Communion at a younger age and prior to "confirmation" has been a process of learning and refining how best to go about it. I've also found that when my colleagues are contemplating a move in this direction, they are eager to chat with me about what I've done, and how I've done it, in order to benefit from what I've learned along the way. There are too many aspects to the whole matter of catechesis and admission of the Holy Communion that cannot be solved by theoretical discussion alone.
Aside from those practical considerations and concerns, which are not insignificant, it is a special case when the practice in question is such a fundamental part of the Christian faith and life, and of the Church's corporate life as the Body and Bride of Christ, our Lord. I'm well aware of Dr. Luther's patience and his conservative approach to the Reformation, but he didn't simply keep on talking forever without ever acting. Certain things did finally have to be dared for the sake of the Gospel. The authority for catechesis and admission to the Holy Communion is the Word of Christ, not the consensus of the Church; although the catholic consensus of the Church, in this regard, was to catechize and commune much earlier than the typical LCMS practice has been.
Apart from the big questions of how a pastor ought to act as a steward of the Mysteries of God in relation to the Church catholic, I have become more and more convinced that the particular question of admittance to the Sacrament of the Altar requires pastoral discernment and discretion on a case-by-case basis. It is, as I have posited before, an aspect of pastoral care. I am a firm believer in having objective criteria and standards, and I agree wholeheartedly that there must be accountability on the part of the pastor, as well as humility and self-discipline. Yet, there is a reason that God calls and ordains men to be living pastors of His Church on earth, rather than simply making provision for individuals to use the self-service checkout lane, or the fast food drive-through, to pick up and run with the means of grace. Is there risk involved? Will pastors not sometimes screw up, or abuse their authority and pastoral prerogatives? Of course! Pastors also have to repent within their particular station in life, and it is all the more crucial because the care of souls is at stake. The risk and danger are not greater, in my opinion, than that of waiting until adolescence to begin the process of admission to the Holy Communion.
Neither human fathers nor pastors have all knowledge or wisdom. Indeed, we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment. Yet, the Lord in His wisom has called both fathers and pastors to their particular offices and stations in life, and they are not permitted, whether by laziness, fear or negligence, to sit back and wait for some heavenly download of information. This is no different, in its own way, than the Thessalonians sitting back and waiting for the Parousia, refusing to work but counting on their neighbors to feed them. We all stumble in many ways, but the man who bridles his tongue to speak the Word of the perfect Man can be sure of what he teaches and confesses. When fathers and pastors carry out their offices with and according to the Word of God in Christ, then surely it is true that "Father Knows Best."