What did Paul mean when he said, “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel…” (I Cor 1:17)? Here is the full context:
Now I mean this, that each of you is saying, “I am with Paul,” or “I am with Apollos,” or “I am with Cephas,” or “I am with Christ.” 1:13 Is Christ divided? Paul wasn’t crucified for you, was he? Or were you in fact baptized in the name of Paul? 1:14 I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, 1:15 so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name! 1:16 (I also baptized the household of Stephanus. Otherwise, I do not remember whether I baptized anyone else.) 1:17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel – and not with clever speech, so that the cross of Christ would not become useless. (I Cor 1:11-17)

 

This passage poses a challenge to those of us who understand the Bible to teach that baptism is essential to salvation. It’s one thing to say, “I did not baptize many of you,” but it is an entirely other matter to say, “Christ did not send me to baptize.” The first is an incidental fact of history and circumstance, but the latter appears to speak of purpose. Paul seems to be saying that baptizing people is not part of His ministerial call. It seems strange that Paul, a minister of the Gospel, would not be sent to baptize when baptism is a proper response to the Gospel message. And it’s not as if Paul’s type of ministry would not have required him to baptize much. A teacher may not be required to baptize much because his ministerial function is primarily to believers, but Paul was an apostle. It would seem strange that someone whose job was to make converts for Christ would not be sent to baptize, if baptism was essential to their conversion. Taken at face value, this appears to diminish the importance of baptism, calling into question whether it is indeed necessary for regeneration. So how do we understand Paul, then?

One possibility is that Paul is employing a Hebraism. Hebrews used a “not this, but this” construction to communicate the idea of “not only this, but also and especially this other.” It is a way of emphasizing what’s named second over what’s named first. For example, when Jesus said “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that remains unto everlasting life” (Jn 6:27). Clearly He did not mean we should not work so that we can buy food, but rather that we need to do more than that. We need to work to obtain food that is more important: food that will last forever.

The problem with this explanation is that it still doesn’t fit with our understanding of the importance of baptism. If baptism is necessary to salvation, how could preaching the Gospel be said to be of more importance? It would seem to me that both would be equally important. Without the preaching of the Gospel one could not have faith; without baptism one could not properly exercise their faith to be born again. So while this explanation seems plausible at first, it ends up just recycling the problem. In the end the role of baptism is denigrated.

What are your thoughts on this passage? How would you explain it in light of other Biblical passages?