As we look at passages in the New Testament that teach about baptism, we come to 1 Corinthians 1. It’s a passage that merits more than a superficial read. Many have read the passage quickly and come away with the idea that Paul here is denying the importance of baptism. Did Paul not care if people were baptized or not? Let’s read his words and find out:
“Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul? I am thankful that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized into my name. (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” (1 Corinthians 1:13–17)
Paul is writing to a church that is suffering division. More than that, people were rallying around certain teachers, claiming to be true to their doctrine. Paul had described the situation in the previous verses:
“My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas’”; still another, “I follow Christ.”” (1 Corinthians 1:11–12)
So Paul says, “Were you baptized into my name?” Note the assumption. He assumes that the Corinthians had been baptized, baptized in the name of Christ. It’s not “those of you that were baptized”; Paul addresses them as baptized believers. He even says that directly in a later passage in Corinthians: “For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body” (1 Corinthians 12:13)
Paul doesn’t say “I am thankful that few of you were baptized.” He says, “I’m thankful I didn’t baptize any of you except…” He’s talking about who was the person who actually lowered these people into the water. He’s glad he didn’t do that much so as not to encourage further claims of being “of Paul.”
Maybe this doesn’t happen as much in the States, where people keep tabs on who baptized them. It certainly does overseas, especially where foreign missionaries are involved. If we’re not careful, an elite caste grows up in the church: those who were baptized by foreigners.
That’s why I avoid baptizing people when traveling. I want to see them baptized. I teach them to be baptized. I rejoice when they are baptized. But I prefer that it be done by locals, not by me, the visiting evangelist.
Which is what Paul is saying. He doesn’t want to brag about how many people have been baptized by his hand. That’s not what he was sent to do. He was sent to preach the gospel so that people would be baptized. He wasn’t sent to put people under the water himself.
Paul affirms the importance of baptism, while devaluing the identity of the person who does the actual baptizing. As he will say later, what matters is that God’s Spirit is at work, baptizing us into Christ’s body. Which hands help us into the water is of little importance.