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If Paul taught that baptism is not essential, he would contradict many other passages of Scriptures (for a study of such Scriptures, please go to instruct and study our free articles about the importance and purpose of baptism).
Note what Paul is discussing. He is talking about people who were exalting preachers and dividing over them. Apparently some were especially dividing over the preachers who taught and/or baptized them. So he says he is glad that he did not baptize any more of them than he did.
If this is saying that baptism is not important, then the conclusion would be that Paul is rejoicing that not many people got baptized. So, it must be good to not be baptized! Such a view clearly contradicts Scripture, and it even contradicts the doctrine of those who argue that baptism is not essential to salvation, since they admit baptism is a command and most of them will not accept anyone into their denomination unless they are baptized!
Paul first raised the subject of baptism in verse 13 right alongside the subject of the crucifixion. If Paul is saying baptism is not essential to salvation, is he also saying the crucifixion is not essential to salvation? But if the crucifixion is essential, then why would Paul introduce the subject of baptism alongside it?
The fact is that in the context Paul has already explained the reason why he made his statements about baptism. He is not saying baptism does not need to be done or is not necessary to salvation. He is saying that, if he personally had done more baptizing, more people would be naming themselves after him (vv 14,15) and exalting and dividing over him. His "clique" would be even bigger. He is not saying that baptism is unnecessary, but that he wanted as little as possible to do with this problem of division over preachers.
He had established the church in Corinth, and the people there were baptized as a result (Acts 18:8). He himself was baptized because he had been told what he must do (Acts 9:6), and what he was told was to be baptized and wash away his sins (Acts 22:16). He later taught that baptism is essential to come into Christ and into His death (Rom. 6:3,4; Gal. 3:27).
Furthermore, he says here in 1 Corinthians 1:17 that he was sent to preach the gospel. What does the gospel say about baptism? It says that baptism is necessary to salvation (Mark 16:15,16; 1 Peter 3:21). When Peter preached the gospel for the first time on Pentecost, he taught that baptism was necessary for the remission of sins -- Acts 2:38. Paul taught the same gospel, not a different gospel (Gal. 1:8,9). Hence, when Paul preached the gospel, he also preached that baptism is necessary to salvation. Nothing here or elsewhere denies that.
The topic under discussion is not whether or not baptism is essential to salvation. That issue was settled clearly in numerous other passages, and the Corinthians would already have understood that teaching even before they themselves were baptized. The topic under discussion is who actually did the physical act of baptizing.
In this context Paul says he was sent, not to baptize, but to preach the gospel. The point is not that baptism is not essential, but that it was not the special calling of Paul to perform the physical act of baptism itself. He was an apostle, inspired of the Holy Spirit to receive and deliver the message of the gospel. Preaching was one of his special responsibilities, and among other things he preached that baptism was essential to salvation. But as to who did the actual baptism, that was not his special work as an apostle, and it did not matter who did that.
Compare this to John 4:1,2 -- Jesus taught people and convinced them to become His disciples, but other disciples actually baptized the people. They were baptized in order to be disciples, but Jesus Himself did not need to be the one who did the physical act of baptism. Likewise, Paul taught the necessity of baptism, but it did not matter who did the act of baptism.
This is a common expression. The purpose of such expressions was, not to deny the importance of the first point listed, but simply to emphasize the importance of the second point. For other examples, see John 6:27; 12:44; 1 Corinthians 15:10; 1 Peter 3:3,4; Mark 9:37; Matt. 10:20; Acts 5:4; 1 Thess. 4:8; Genesis 45:8; Titus 3:5; 2 Timothy 1:9.
If Paul's statement that he was not sent to baptize was an absolute, then he should not have baptized anyone. But in fact he clearly states that he sometimes did so, even in Corinth. So Paul is not even denying that he sometimes did do the physical act of baptizing. The point he is making is that his emphasis was on teaching the gospel. As an apostle, that was his special responsibility. In so teaching, he taught the truth about baptism, including the fact that it is necessary to salvation. But when he had so taught people, it did not matter who actually did the act of immersing them in water. This could have been done by Paul or anyone else. And in this case he was glad that it worked out that he had baptized relatively few, otherwise people might have thought he sought to exalt himself and that in turn might have resulted in greater emphasis on him among those who were causing division.
(c) Copyright David E. Pratte, 7/3/2006
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Scripture quotations are generally from the New King James Version (NKJV), copyright 1982, 1988 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. used by permission. All rights reserved.