I’ve had people object to the importance of baptism by saying, “Paul wasn’t sent to baptize.” Are we really supposed to understand baptism as optional by this quotation from Paul in 1 Corinthians 1? We must investigate the immediate and broader contexts to answer our question.
Paul is dealing with a worldly, party spirit within the church at Corinth. Some are saying, “I am of Paul.” Others are saying, “I am of Apollos.” And others still are saying, “I am of Cephas,” or “I am of Christ.” For this reason, Paul is glad that he hasn’t baptized many of them, for fear they would have claimed to be baptized into the name of Paul. He had, however, baptized Crispus, Gaius, the household of Stephanas, and he wasn’t certain who all else. Baptism is clearly a part of the ministry of Paul. It is within this context that Paul states, “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel” (1 Corinthians 1:17).
First, we need to examine what Paul says about baptism. Within 1 Corinthians, Paul teaches, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:13, ESV). Baptism is linked to one’s incorporation into the body, that is the church, and regeneration (that’s what the language of “made to drink of one Spirit” is about). We cannot imagine a Christian not in the church or not having the Spirit. Baptism does not appear from this teaching to be optional. But consider also the following passages from Paul.
- Romans 6:3-4 — union with Christ and regeneration.
- Galatians 3:27-29 — put on Christ and become heirs
- Ephesians 4:5-6 — one of the important ones of Christianity.
- Colossians 2:12 — buried and raised with Christ
If baptism is important in Paul’s teaching, what explains his statement in 1 Corinthians 1:17. The answer to that question also is found in 1 Corinthians. It is Paul’s view of ministry: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone (1 Corinthians 12:4–6, ESV).
Clearly Paul sees his function within the church as to preach and teach the gospel. If we take seriously what Paul writes, this teaching will result in baptisms. But Paul’s view of ministry is such that he doesn’t have to be the one who actually performs the baptism. He does at times, but others do too. Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 1:17 doesn’t make baptism optional. It reflects the fact there may be a division of labor between the one who does the teaching and the one who administers the baptism.