Was Baptism Unimportant to Paul?

In arguing against the divisions in Corinth, Paul questions “Or were you baptized in the name of Paul” (1 Cor. 1:13, ESV)? Paul then begins a digression where he is thankful that he hadn’t baptized many of the Corinthians, so they couldn’t claim to have been baptized into Paul. He notes that he had baptized Crispus and Gaius and then remembers he must add the household of Stephanas to the list, and he is a bit uncertain of how many more. But he concludes, “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel” (1 Cor. 1:17, ESV). Does this statement mean that baptism was unimportant to Paul?

How do we go about answering the question? The context of the Bible must be our source of evidence. First, let us examine Paul’s teaching on baptism.

  • Romans 6:1-6. In baptism, we are united with Christ. We are united to his death, and therefore, we have the hope of being united with his resurrection.
  • 1 Corinthians 12:13. Baptism is the occasion for our being united in the body of Christ and is linked with the reception of the Holy Spirit.
  • Galatians 3:27-29. Baptism is when we put on Christ and become heirs.
  • Ephesians 4:4-5. Paul places one baptism in a list which includes one body, one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, and one God.
  • Colossians 2:11-12. Baptism unites us with the burial and resurrection of Christ, and it is also linked with the spiritual, circumcision of Christ (i.e., regeneration). Grammatically, the “having been buried” is antecedent or contemporaneous to the main verb “were circumcised.” That means the spiritual, circumcision of Christ occurs at the same time as the baptism or following it as far as the grammar of the sentence is concerned.

The clear teaching of Paul prevents me from saying that baptism was unimportant to Paul. So how am I to understand Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 1? Again, the context of scripture helps us.

Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John (although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples), he left Judea and departed again for Galilee. (John 4:1–3 ESV)

This is a passage which shows a division of labor between Jesus who is doing the preaching and his disciples who are doing the baptizing. Does a division of labor approach to preaching and baptizing explain Paul’s comment? It certainly does, and it fits with what Paul says about the differing functions in the body (1 Corinthians 12).

Was baptism unimportant to Paul? Paul’s clear teaching on baptism and the broader context of scripture must cause us to answer no. Baptism is clearly important to Paul.

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