The text: 1 Corinthians 1:10-17
Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it hath been declared unto me of you, my brethren, by them which are of the house of Chloe, that there are contentions among you. Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ. Is Christ divided? was Paul crucified for you? or were ye baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you, but Crispus and Gaius; lest any should say that I had baptized in mine own name. And I baptized also the household of Stephanas: besides, I know not whether I baptized any other. For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect.
A question: what is the meaning of 1 Corinthians 1:17?
This text was brought to the forefront of my thinking last week by a “controversialist” (in a different venue) whom I struggled to understand.[i] I am not sure whether his focus on Paul’s statement “Christ sent me not to baptize” was intended to deny the command to baptize in water for the present day,[ii] to differentiate Paul’s doctrine from Baptist doctrine (since Paul seems to downplay baptism here), to criticize Paul for baptizing when he was not so sent, or something else. Nevertheless, that brought my focus on this passage of scripture and its meaning. It is obvious that the bare sentence in verse 17a distinctly says, “For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel.” This sets forward a conundrum. If Paul says he was sent to preach the gospel rather than to baptize, why did he baptize in addition to preaching the gospel? Did Paul do something that Jesus didn’t instruct him to do?
We must consider the biblical background of baptism.
For background, it is well to remember that at least some apostles, in some sense, seem to be sent to baptize. Consider Jesus’s command recorded in Matthew 28:18-20 (baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost) and Mark 16:15-16. (I would maintain, nevertheless, that in the strictest sense of biblical interpretation, only one individual has ever been sent to baptize – that being John the Baptist (cf. John 1:6; John 1:33).) Water baptism was a rite practiced by John the Baptist, by the disciples of Jesus during his tabernacling among men (John 4:1-3), and by the early church after Jesus’s ascension and the baptism of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost (e.g. Acts 2:38-42; Acts 8:12-16, 8:36-38; Acts 9:18; Acts 10:47-48; Acts 16:14-15, 16:32-33; Acts 18:8; Acts 19:5). It is also well to remember that Paul put forward some strong teaching on the rite of baptism (e.g. Galatians 3:27; Colossians 2:12), and even connects its meaning with the gospel (that is, the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ; cf. Romans 6:3-6 and 1 Corinthians 15:3-4).[iii]
We must consider the context of the statement.
A quick scan of the context shows this is Paul, an apostle, writing a letter to the church at Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:1-2). After some preliminary remarks, Paul comes quickly to the report declared unto him about the contentions in the church at Corinth.[iv] The party spirit – proclaiming to follow after one or the other, Paul, Apollos, or Cephas) – led them into division, divisiveness, and discord. Paul was disturbed that they were focusing on and exulting in the messengers, rather than the message and the God who gave it (1 Corinthians 3:4-6). It is within this context of division that Paul declares “I thank God that I baptized none of you” (with a few exceptions).[v] Paul goes further to emphasize that he was “sent not to baptize.” In this context, two things regarding baptism are evident. Paul says “Christ sent me not to baptize” and Paul did baptize. In the same breath that Paul said that he was not sent to baptize, he also said that he did baptize!
We must consider the manner of expression.
Some approach Paul’s statement as a sort of “either/or” proposition – either preach the gospel or baptize, but not both. The manner of expression Paul uses stresses rank – “not this” in rank of importance, “but that” instead is most important. In the 1 Corinthians 1:17 “not ... but” passage we have a hyperbolic expression that emphasizes the priority of preaching the gospel over against performing baptisms. It is not an absolute statement that he was not supposed to baptize. If so, he should not have baptized anyone and would have been in rebellion doing so. But Paul did baptize. To tie such a tight knot in this “not ... but” passage deprives it of its true meaning. If Paul was absolutely sent not to baptize, it follows that he disobeyed when he baptized those few that he said he did. If it were an absolute, then never, at no time, did Paul’s sending involve baptism. The immediate context shows that is not the case.
The 1 Corinthians 1:17 “not ... but” passage is one of several in the Bible in which a primary idea is expressed in a way that negates the secondary – not for the purpose of literally negating the secondary, but to emphasize the primary. Here Paul expresses a preference of the gospel over baptism. The gospel must precede faith, and faith must precede baptism. Baptism is a subservient work that can only follow rather than precede the gospel.[vi] A preacher can fulfill his calling to preach the gospel without ever baptizing even one. This is not a denigration of baptism, but simple recognition of the nature of baptism, the answer of a good conscience toward God.
The “not this, but that” contrast is a common way of expressing and emphasizing the importance of the main point. Here are six other biblical examples of some “not this, but that” contrasts.
- The higher power Genesis 45:8 So now it was not you that sent me hither, but God: and he hath made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and a ruler throughout all the land of Egypt. (It was not that the brothers had no culpability of their act, but that behind the scenes there was a higher power who sent Joseph to Egypt.)
- The genuine speaker Matthew 10:20 For it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father which speaketh in you. (It is not that they spoke not at all, but that when they spoke it was through the instrumentality of the Holy Spirit.)
- The crucial labor John 6:27 Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life (Jesus is not discouraging working for temporal food, but contrasting it to the crucial spiritual importance.)
- The greater lie Acts 5:4 Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power? why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart? thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God. (It was not that they literally did not lie at all to Peter and the apostles, but that the greater lie was to the one to whom the church belonged.)
- The abundant worker 1 Corinthians 15:10 But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me. (It is not that Paul was a wet dishrag just lying there, but what he did have no significance about from the work of the grace of God.)
- The primary adorning 1 Peter 3:3-4 Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel; 4 but let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price. (It is not that there should be no adorning at all, but that the outward adornment is superficial without inward spiritual adornment.)
Used in various places in the Bible, “not this, but that” is observable as a rhetorical device or figure of speech expressing emphasis of one thing “at the expense” of another.
We may compare the thoughts of others.[vii]
Adam Clarke Commentary: “For Christ sent me not to baptize – Bp. Pearce translates thus: For Christ sent me, not so much to baptize as to preach the Gospel: and he supports his version thus – ‘The writers of the Old and New Testaments do, almost every where (agreeably to the Hebrew idiom) express a preference given to one thing beyond another by an affirmation of that which is preferred, and a negation of that which is contrary to it: and so it must be understood here, for if St. Paul was not sent at all to baptize, he baptized without a commission; but if he was sent, not only to baptize but to preach also, or to preach rather than baptize, he did in fact discharge his duty aright’.”
Barnes’ Notes on the Whole Bible: “For Christ sent me not to baptize – That is, not to baptize as my main business. Baptism was not his principal employment, though he had a commission in common with others to administer the ordinance, and occasionally did it.”
Geneva Study Bible: “…that he gave not himself to baptize many amongst them: not for the contempt of baptism, but because he was mainly occupied in delivering the doctrine, and committed those that received his doctrine to others to be baptized.”
Matthew Poole’s Commentary on the Holy Bible: “For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the Gospel; baptism was not his principal work, not the main business for which Paul was sent; it was his work, otherwise he would not have baptized Crispus, or Gaius, or the household of Stephanas, but preaching was his principal work.”
Meyer’s Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: “In the assured consciousness that the design of his apostolic mission was teaching, Paul recognised that baptizing, as an external office and one that required no special gift, should as a rule be left to others, the apostolic ὑπηρέται (Acts 13:5),[viii] in order to avoid, for his own part, being drawn away from following out that higher aim, which was his specific calling. A very needful and salutary division of duties, considering the multitude of those converted by him...Nor was this contrary to Christ’s command in Matthew 28:19, seeing that, according to it also (comp Luke 24:47; Mark 16:15), teaching was the main business of the apostolic office, while the baptismal command was equally fulfilled by baptism performed by means of others authorized by the apostles.”
Conclusion: Sent not primarily to baptize, but to preach the Gospel.
In the existing climate of division in the church at Corinth, Paul was thankful that he had performed but few baptisms there. The specific performer of the rite was insignificant to Paul. He kept no records and was not even certain that he could recall all those whom he baptized – though he did recall a few. Paul baptized a few and he faithfully discharged his duty. Any supposed baptizing contrary to God’s design, without his being sent to baptize, is a figment of modern imagination. 1 Corinthians 4:1-2 Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful. 1 Corinthians 4:16 Wherefore I beseech you, be ye followers of me. 1 Corinthians 11:1 Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ. Paul faithfully followed Christ.
Paul was free of ambition. He had no desire to start his own party. He made no claim to baptizing in great numbers. This was especially significant in demonstrating he had no desire to exalt himself or be party to division. Paul’s mission was not simply to secure the baptism of people. Paul doesn’t state this in order to depreciate baptism. He holds baptism in high esteem and argues its importance elsewhere. He was sent as an apostle (cf. 1 Cor. 1:1) – not as a baptizer; but the apostles did baptize. He preached the gospel for a response of faith. Baptism would soon answer to that (cf. 1 Peter 3:21).
A former school teacher compared the situation in Corinth with math students “caught up in the novelty of the manipulatives” used in the classroom. A teacher might tell the students, “I am not here to bring you coins and bills to play with. I am here to teach you how to make change and make it quickly and in your head.” That statement did not mean that they never use play money to “manipulate” with their hands and in their minds. It means that the manipulative money is a part of a bigger picture, and that the bigger picture may be misunderstood if the focus is placed on the manipulatives.
If Paul’s statement that he was not sent to baptize were an absolute, then he should never have baptized anyone. But in the very context he clearly states that he sometimes did so, regarding the matter under consideration. We read that he baptized at another time (cf. Acts 19:6). The act of baptizing could have been done by Paul or others – such as Silas and Timothy, who came there to meet Paul – and thus was not an imperative for the apostle himself. In this case, because of the spirit of division in Corinth, he was thankful that it worked out just that way – that is, that he had baptized only a few.
“Christ sent me not to baptize” is neither a denunciation nor a nullification of the biblical rite of baptism.
[i] The struggle to understand was probably the fault of us both, exacerbated by the distance created by our very different approach to the text.
[ii] “Where baptism in water does not exist, there is no Church, no brother, no sister, no fraternal discipline, exclusion or restoration. I speak here of the visible Church as Christ said (Matt. 18).” – Balthasar Hubmaier
[iii] Paul baptized some of the Corinthians (Acts 18:8; cf. I Corinthians 1:14-16) and about twelve men in Ephesus (Acts 19:1-7).
[iv] Speak same thing | no divisions | be joined together | contentions | divisions | Paul not crucified | not baptized in his name | thankful baptized but two & one household | didn’t remember any others | Paul exhorts against division. The way things should be, v. 10; what Paul had heard, vs. 11-12; the reply – question, v. 13; the reply – evidence, v. 14-16; why he is thankful, v. 17.
[v] Some of the Corinthians were baptized by Paul, while we may safely assume the majority were baptized by Silas and Timothy. Cf. Acts 18: 1 After these things Paul departed from Athens, and came to Corinth… 4 And he reasoned in the synagogue every sabbath, and persuaded the Jews and the Greeks. 5 And when Silas and Timotheus were come from Macedonia, Paul was pressed in the spirit, and testified to the Jews that Jesus was Christ…8 And Crispus, the chief ruler of the synagogue, believed on the Lord with all his house; and many of the Corinthians hearing believed, and were baptized… 11 And he continued there a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them.
[vi] Notice should be taken of this argument – that is, baptism is subservient to the gospel and must be preceded by faith. This fact is an explicit denial of infant baptism, proxy baptism, and such like.
[vii] Adam Clarke (ca. 1760-1832) was a British Methodist; Albert Barnes (1798-1870) American Presbyterian; Matthew Poole (1624-1679) English Nonconformist; Heinrich August Wilhelm Meyer (1800-1873), German Protestant; Geneva Study Bible (1560), Protestant Reformation Bible. I have chosen to quote those not Baptist, to show the interpretation most often agreed upon is not a Baptist calculation. We might well have quoted from John Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible: “For Christ sent me not to baptize,...Some think the apostle refers to his particular mission from Christ, Acts 26:16 in which no mention is made of his administering the ordinance of baptism; but no doubt he had the same mission the rest of the apostles had, which was to baptize as well as preach; and indeed, if he had not been sent at all to baptize, it would have been unlawful for him to have administered baptism to any person whatever; but his sense is, that baptism was not the chief and principal business he was sent about...”
[viii] Augustine is often quoted as saying (though I have not located the source): “Even the less learned can baptize perfectly, but perfectly to preach the Gospel is a far more difficult task, and requires qualifications which are far more rare.” [Note: this footnote is my addition and not part of Meyer’s Commentary.]