by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Tuesday, November 22, 2011 at 10:55am

QUESTION: How do you interpret 1 Corinthians 1:17, “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (ESV)?

ANSWER: It is very common for this passage to be interpreted as implying that baptism is not important, and that Paul considered it to be almost irrelevant. As thus interpreted, this text is thrown in the face of those who believe that baptism is a salvation event, the occasion when God bestows the double cure of grace. When correctly understood in terms of its context, however, this text actually underscores the importance of baptism.

[The following is an excerpt from chapter one of my book, Baptism: A Biblical Study (2 ed., College Press, 2006), pp. 12-14. This chapter is a discussion of Matthew 28:19-20, where Jesus shows the importance of baptism by separating it from the life of good works, i.e., observing all that Jesus has commanded.]

This unique importance of baptism is underscored by several other passages in the New Testament where baptism is mentioned but where it would be out of place if it were just another good work. One such passage is 1 Corinthians 1:10-17, which is often cited for just the opposite purpose, viz., to show the unimportance of baptism. Here is what it says:

“Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree, and there be no divisions among you, but you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment. For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you. Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, “I am of Paul,” and “I of Apollos,” and “I of Cephas,” and “I of Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, that no man should say you were baptized in my name. Now I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any other. For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech, that the cross of Christ should not be made void” (NASB).

At first glance one might think that Paul is here demoting baptism to the ranks of insignificant duties or even optional acts. After all, he thanks God that he baptized only a few people (vv. 14, 16), and says that his own commission was not to baptize but to preach the gospel (v. 17). But this is an incomplete and distorted reading of the passage for several reasons.

First, it ignores the reason why Paul is glad he baptized only a few, as verse 15 says, “that no man should say you were baptized in my name.” Why is this important? Because in the early church baptism was so important that the human agent who did the baptizing often was made the object of special allegiance rivaling the worship of Christ and leading to factions within the church (see vv. 12-13). This danger was even more acute if the baptizer had an inherent prominence or authority, such as Peter, Paul, or Apollos. Paul is glad he baptized only a few so that the circle of his converts could not use this as a means of setting themselves apart from other Christians. His reasoning presupposes the importance of baptism, not its unimportance.

Second, Paul’s commission (v. 17) could not be materially different from that spoken by Christ in Matthew 28:19-20. Though Paul’s own specific task was to preach the gospel, this was not to be separated from baptism. It simply means that he did not have to do the baptizing personally; he could leave that part of the commission to others, thus avoiding the potential for division. He obviously assumed that all his converts (and indeed all Christians) had been baptized, since he often referred to their baptism in his teaching (see Rom. 6:3ff.; Gal. 3:27). Paul emphasizes the priority of his preaching since preaching always takes precedence over baptizing in the sense that it must always come first. Without preaching, there would not even be any faith (Rom. 10:14); and without faith, there would be no baptism in the first place.

Third, Paul’s extensive teaching in other passages on the important meaning of baptism (Romans 6:3-4; 1 Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 3:26-27; Ephesians 5:25-27; Colossians 2:11-13; Titus 3:5) would not be consistent with the view that he is denigrating baptism in this passage.

Finally, such a view contradicts the main lesson about baptism to be learned from 1 Corinthians 1:10-17, viz., that it is considered to be important enough to be listed in the most exclusive of company. Verse 13 says, “Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” Here we see three things to be considered by those who are in danger of dividing the church through their secondary allegiances to human leaders. (a) The church is Christ’s body. When you divide the church, you divide his very body. Do you want to be guilty of such an offense? (b) It was Christ who was crucified for you; it was Christ who performed the deed that purchased the church with his own blood. Don’t put me (Paul) on this exalted level with Christ; I have not redeemed you. (c) You were baptized into the name of Christ, not Paul. Don’t attach any human name to this act which relates you to the one head of the church.

The point is this: why should Paul bring up the subject of baptism at all, especially in conjunction with the momentous events of the crucifixion of Christ and the potential division of the body of Christ, if it were not among the most vital and serious aspects of the very existence and life of the church? How could he so forcefully and in the same breath remind them of who was crucified for them and of the name in which they were baptized, if baptism were not in some sense worthy of such a conjunction?

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  1. I see an elegant symmetry in Paul’s argument – by emphasizing the crucifixion and their baptism, he reminds the Corinthians of the singular and undivided nature of Christ’s sacrifice on their behalf, and of their common connection to that sacrifice through their baptism.

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