In 1 Corinthians 1:17, the apostle Paul says that “Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel.” Some commentators read this statement and conclude that Paul is downplaying baptism or saying that baptism doesn’t really matter that much in the big scheme of things. For example, Richard Hays writes:
In Paul’s apostolic work the ministry of the Word is all-important, whereas the ministry of “sacrament” has only secondary significance; the community should not be divided by different sacramental practices, because its fundamental ground of unity lies in the proclaimed gospel (p. 24).
The implication seems to be that differences over baptismal practices are not as significant enough different traditions have made them out to be. Furthermore, it doesn’t really matter whether a person gets baptized or whether they had an infant baptism versus a believer’s baptism, etc. In this way, commentators have downplayed baptism. But is that a correct understanding of Paul’s statement? I think not.
Paul is not downplaying the importance of baptism. He is simply making reference to his unique commission from Christ to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. There are many who can baptize, but Paul was specially appointed by Christ to preach the gospel.
John 4:2 says that Jesus himself baptized no one but left the baptizing to his disciples. But that practice did not render baptism of secondary significance to Jesus. For Jesus himself gave us the great commission, which is the primary mission of the church and which includes baptism (Matt. 28:19-20).
If this interpretation is correct, then it might be better to translate verse 17 as follows: “Christ did not send me to perform baptisms but to preach the gospel” (Thiselton). So Paul is not denigrating baptism. He’s simply following the example and calling of Jesus. His aim was not to make sure that he did all the baptizing. His aim was to preach the gospel, for “preaching was the spearhead of the Christian mission” (Barrett, 49). In his commentary on this text, Spurgeon put it this way:
“There were other people who could baptize for him: it was enough for him that he should concentrate all his energies upon that one matter of preaching the gospel, not that he neglected the divine command, but that it was not necessary that he, any more than his Master, should baptize personally, for we read that ‘Jesus Christ baptized not, but his disciples.’ Not to put a dishonour upon the ordinance, but to let us see that the ordinance does not depend upon the man, but upon that sacred name into which we are baptized, and upon the true faith of the person baptized.”
–C. H. Spurgeon, “Witnessing at the Cross,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, vol. 59 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1913), 348.