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How important is baptism in the church’s mission? Perhaps better said, how important should it be? Some Christian groups have made baptism so peripheral that it’s treated almost as an optional afterthought—helpful but not vital.
In some ways this is understandable. For some, it comes as a reaction to Christian groups that have made baptism so central as to deny an unbaptized person can be saved. But beyond that, Scripture contains statements which, taken out of context, seem to imply that baptism doesn’t matter all that much.
Case in point: in 1 Corinthians 1:17, Paul says, “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.” At first glance, this sounds like a radical downplaying of baptism. But is it?
What does Paul mean when he says “Christ did not send me to baptize”? To answer this question, we need to look at verse 17 in light of three different contexts: 1 Corinthians, Paul’s other letters and actions, and finally the Great Commission.
In Light of 1 Corinthians
First of all, we should note that Paul’s comment about “not being sent to baptize” immediately follows his list of people in Corinth whom he had baptized (1 Cor. 1:14–16). Naming off the people he’d baptized (including those he doesn’t remember) would be a strange way for Paul to say “baptism doesn’t matter at all.”
Naming off the people he’d baptized (including those he doesn’t remember) would be a strange way for Paul to say ‘Baptism doesn’t matter at all.’
Moreover, rather than being a boast, this list is intended to minimize the importance of exactly who baptized those in the Corinthian church. Rather than baptism being a contest between Christians regarding which “celebrity preacher” performed the rite, it is instead an act of obedience and sign of the gospel message. Paul is minimizing the performative, “celebrity” aspect of baptism, not the act of baptism.
The wider context supports this as well. Verses 18–25, which arguably introduce the main theme of the letter, are one extended contrast of Jewish and Greco-Roman folly on the one hand and divine wisdom on the other. And that particular contrast leads Paul to combat the contentious factions that have arisen between different groups in the church, divided by who led them to Christ. Rather than the person who evangelized them, it’s the message of the gospel, centered on the person and work of Jesus, that really matters.
At every turn, then, Paul wants to minimize any attempt by finite, fallen human beings to take the glory away from God in Christ, and instead emphasizes the gospel message. This includes his remarks on baptism in verse 17. He’s not saying “Baptism doesn’t matter,” but instead, “Who baptized you doesn’t matter—the gospel is what matters.” Christ didn’t send Paul to compete over who and how many he had baptized; he sent him to preach the gospel.
He’s not saying ‘Baptism doesn’t matter,’ but instead, ‘Who baptized you doesn’t matter—the gospel is what matters.’
In Light of Acts and Paul’s Letters
Before we take 1 Corinthians 1:17 too simplistically, let’s see how Paul treated baptism in the book of Acts. For starters, Paul is baptized immediately after his conversion and recovery at Ananias’s house (Acts 9:18), an event he recounts in his testimony in Acts 22:16. When Lydia is converted under Paul’s preaching, she also is baptized immediately (16:15). The same could be said of the jailer and his family (16:33) and of the Ephesian disciples of John the Baptist (19:1–7). Paul’s actions in Acts certainly don’t communicate an ambivalence toward the practice of baptism.
Paul’s teaching also demonstrates the importance of baptism for him, not just practically but also doctrinally and ecclesially. Later in 1 Corinthians, Paul draws on baptism to remind his readers that they are united in Christ:
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 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. 12:12–13; cf. Eph. 4:6)
Paul also uses baptism as a symbol of believers’ new life in Christ and of their unity with one another (Gal. 3:27; Rom. 6:1–4; Col. 2:11–15; cf. also Titus 3:5). Baptism for Paul is thus one of the acts included in the process of becoming a disciple. This is hardly what we would call an ambivalence toward baptism.
In Light of the Great Commission
A final context to consider is that of Paul’s apostleship and its connection to the Great Commission. As Paul repeatedly emphasizes throughout his letters (cf. Gal. 2), Jesus did not call Paul to a different mission than that of the 12 apostles. In fact, they share in the same mission, a mission that Jesus first gave in Matthew 28:18–20. And as you may recall, it includes baptizing:
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:18–20)
If the Lord Jesus commanded his disciples to baptize in fulfilling this Great Commission, then we can expect that Paul, who emphatically insisted that he shared the same mission, believed he was under that same command.
Don’t Downplay Baptism
The most that could be claimed is that 1 Corinthians 1:17 gives preaching the gospel a priority over baptizing people—something no evangelical should deny. But Paul would roll over in his grave if he thought we were using his words to downplay or minimize baptism.
Paul cared deeply about baptism—and so should we. It was part of Paul’s mission, and should be part of ours. Our practice of baptism should never be focused on human performance, effort, celebrity, or skill. Rather, it should remind us of the grace of God in Christ made manifest to us by the power of his Spirit. And in that, baptism is a picture of the gospel—which is just as it should be.