This is a question that is often on our hearts as parents yet one that doesn't get talked about much. As you can imagine there is a wide variety of views on this question among a very wide variety of different churches. I am writing from the perspective of an Evangelical Free Church pastor who will only baptize believers; those who can make a credible profession of their faith in Christ. So within such a context, how would I advise parents and young people of when they are ready to be baptized and to participate in the Lord's Table?
God's people of the New Covenant are commanded by the Lord Jesus to be baptized and to regularly participate in the Lord's Table. This is why we refer to these two worship practices as Christ's "ordinances". The book of Acts reveals much about the practices of the early days of the church. In Acts we see that people hear the gospel and believe the gospel and then are baptized as a step of faith and as an initiation into the church of Christ. In Matthew 28:19-20 the Lord instructs his disciples to "make disciples . . . baptizing them . . . teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you." The Lord clearly teaches that disciples are made through teaching the word of God to those who believe in Christ and desire to be identified with Him in baptism. It seems then that only those who have genuine faith in Christ and have been instructed in the word of Christ should be baptized. In fact in the writings of the early church (first - third centuries) we find that baptismal candidates were required to go through one or two year's worth of catechizing (instruction in the faith) before they would be baptized. Baptism is a one-time practice of initiation into and/or being identified with Christ and the church. Once baptized, the "catechumens" as they were called, would then begin to participate in the sharing of the Lord's Table.
We are given some pretty clear instructions on the practice of communion within the church from the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:23-32. There we are given a warning that we must "examine" ourselves prior to taking part in the Lord's Table so as not to eat and drink in an unworthy manner. What we are to examine ourselves for is to see if we know whether or not we are a part of the body of Christ. That is whether or not we are united to Christ by faith, following Christ as His disciple and loving our brothers and sisters within the church. Therefore the one main requirement for those partaking of the communion meal is that he or she must be a genuine believer and know just what the Lord's Table represents.
In light of these explanations of both baptism and communion, at what age would I recommend Christian children to partake of the Lord's table and be baptized? First of all, I don't believe it is a matter of age. Scripture never speaks of a specific age for participation in the ordinances. The primary qualification is that of a credible profession of faith. Anyone who is baptized and participates in the Lord's Table must be a born again believer. Can young children be born again believers? Yes, of course they can. The Holy Spirit is sovereign and can regenerate whomever He pleases, whenever He pleases. The question comes as to whether or not those who are held responsible for leading the ordinance (usually pastors or elders) can know the young person's profession of faith is genuine. As you can already tell, that is where this decision gets difficult.
I believe ideally, a Christian should be baptized prior to taking part in the Lord's Table. We saw earlier in Scripture and in the church practice that young believers would first be baptized as an initiation to the church and then would participate in the Lord's Table as a part of the church. I think that is a good practice to follow. First to publicly identify with Christ and the church and then to be welcomed as a part of the body through communion.
When someone desires to be baptized, no matter how old the person is, I meet with them to get to know them and seek to discern where they are in their relationship with the Lord. I seek to discern their understanding of the gospel, of baptism, and why they desire to be baptized. The candidate will make their profession of faith to me. Most often I know the young person well enough to know if their profession of faith is credible, in other words, as far as I can tell, they are living by faith in Christ alone for their salvation. I will talk with or depending on the age of the young person, will have them talk with mom and dad to make sure they have no reservations with their profession of faith. One thing I look for is how the young person responds to their own sin. Do they acknowledge it? Do they genuinely grieve over their sin? This is important in order to discern whether or not they understand what it really means to repent. Sometimes I may tell the young person that they should wait until they are a little older so that they can grow in their understanding of the gospel and have more time to display their faith for me and the church before being baptized. If I am convinced they are genuinely following Christ in faith then I will help them to prepare and to share their testimony publicly with the church and will baptize them.
Generally though, I believe it is better if the young person is at least through the 7th grade or older before they are baptized. This is not because I think the age of 12 or 13 is the "age of accountability." It is not because I don't believe a child younger than 12 could be born again. I'm sure that many kids are. It is more so that it gives me and the church more of an opportunity to observe the young person living out their faith. Once a young person gets into the teenage years the testing of their faith begins to occur much more so than when they were elementary school age. It is a good time to observe whether or not their faith is truly genuine. Whether or not they really follow Christ when their faith is challenged. It will also give them more opportunities to display the fruit of the Spirit in their lives. The older the young person is, usually the more memorable their baptism will be for them and the more their faith will be strengthened.
As for communion, of course if one has been baptized as a believer, than they should take part in communion no matter what age. Baptism being the initiation into the life of the church and communion being the ongoing practice of the Christian within the church, it is ideal if the Christian child would wait to be baptized before taking part in communion. However, if a young person has a desire to take part in communion, and the parents believe their child's faith is genuine, I have no problem with the parents allowing the child to participate in communion prior to baptism. Especially since baptismal services in our church only take place during the summer. Parents should look for genuine faith and repentance. Does the child grieve over their sin? Does the child understand the gospel? Do they show a genuine love for the Lord and a growing love for others? Considering these questions will help in determining if the child is ready to participate in the Lord's Table.
The main concern I have in baptizing a young child or encouraging young children to participate in the Lord's Table is giving that young person a false assurance of their salvation. I know of churches that will baptize anyone who desires it, who just make simple profession of faith in Jesus. Children, youth and adults answer the invitation to come to the waters and be baptized without giving a testimony, without having the pastor really knowing if their faith is genuine. I fear such pastors and churches are doing more harm than good. When a pastor baptizes someone, he is showing that person that he is convinced that he or she is in union with Christ, and is to understand him or herself as a Christian and have assurance that they will be welcomed into the kingdom of God. I just really don't believe any pastor can have such assurance of young children who have really never been tested in their faith. I don't want to give a young person a false sense of assurance of their salvation. I believe the evangelical church in America is full of people who believe they are Christians because they were giving some assurance by someone in the church when they were young, but who really are not born again.
I don't see anything wrong with waiting a few more years for the child to have a chance to show they really are following Christ. If a child wants to be baptized at 8 years old who really is a believer, well then, he or she will still be a believer at age 13. If the Holy Spirit is dwelling in them at 8, He will still be there at 13, and the young believer will have several years worth of spiritual growth to display. One pastor's not baptizing them at 8 years will not be such a discouragement that they fall away. Rather it will be a blessing for them to know that the pastor cares more for their soul in the long run. It will also be a statement to the church and the family involved that the pastor takes God's Word seriously and wants to avoid leading anyone astray.