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To Baptize, Or Not to Baptize?

Matt. 28:19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,

1 Cor. 1:17 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.

Is Paul setting himself against Jesus' commission here?

Hardly. This is an example by Paul of a "negation idiom" (see link below) which expresses the idea, in light of the Corinthians' undue emphasis on baptism (warned against throughout the letter), that Paul considers the practice of baptism to be secondary to preaching the gospel (which agrees with the order of Jesus' command). It is a dash of cold water, to be sure, but not a total negation of baptism, for otherwise, why would Paul have admitted to baptizing Crispus and a few others?

Indeed, his manner or writing -- the way he adds as a comment that he also remembers baptizing the household of Stephanus, but can't recall who else, is another rhetorical tactic throwing cold water on the Corinthians' "baptism frenzy". Those who suggest that Paul is "correcting himself" on his "mistake" of saying he only baptized two people are simply not accounting for of the subtle art of Greco-Roman rhetoric. The "recollection" is intentional, a rhetorical device.


Secondary answer: an alert reader has also provided these thoughts.

In an article entitled "A Case in Point", Dr Robert H. Countess makes one of the cheekier attempts to establish a biblical contradiction [Countess, "A Case in Point" in The Skeptical Review, Volume Three, Number One]. Countess alleges that in 1 Corinthians 1:14-16 Paul first makes one claim and then corrects himself. If Countess is correct then there will indeed be an error here; either Paul was right in the first place but erred in his self-correction, or he was right to correct himself but initially made a mistake. But has Countess interpreted Paul correctly?

We begin with the allegedly problematic biblical passage. Countess provides his own "highly literal" translation:

I am thankful that not one of you did I baptize except Crispus and Gaius, lest anyone might say that in my name you were baptized. Now I did baptize also the Stephanas household. Besides, I know not if any other I did baptize. [1 Corinthians 1:14-16]

Countess offers the following comments regarding Paul's initial assertion:

Paul asserts with the utmost clarity whom he did and whom he did not baptize of the believers at Corinth... Paul asserted that "I baptized none of you all there at Corinth EXCEPT for two believers, and their names are Crispus and Gaius."
[H]e wrote, "I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius."... That is a simple assertion... an assertion of universal negation but having expressly two--and only two--exceptions: Crispus and Gaius.

Countess deems this claim problematic because he believes that Paul subsequently describes a third exception to it:

Paul then CORRECTS his earlier universal-negation-with-only-two-exceptions assertion. He adds another exception: the household of Stephanas.

According to Countess, then, Paul makes two contradictory claims; "I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius" and "I also baptized the household of Stephanas". For Countess, this is sufficient to refute the doctrine of biblical inerrancy.

This conclusion is too hastily drawn. In the course of Countess's argument several important subtleties are either over-simplified or ignored. The most important case of this is Countess's crude representation of Paul's first statement as "an assertion of universal negation but having expressly two--and only two--exceptions". Paul does not say that he baptised none except Crispus and Gaius, but none "of you" except Crispus and Gaius.

The negation is not universal, but is strictly limited to those whom Paul is addressing. Countess's argument rests on the assumption that Stephanas, or at least a member of his household, is one of those whom Paul is addressing. This assumption goes undefended, even unstated, in spite of the fact that there are reasons for thinking it false.

We know that when Paul wrote to the Corinthians Stephanas was not among them, and that Paul was aware of this fact. 1 Corinthians 16:17 reads, "I rejoice at the coming of Stephanas and Fortunatus and Achaicus, because they have made up for your absence". When Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, then, Stephanas was with him in Ephesus. It may well be that the whole Stephanas household had relocated to Ephesus, in which case Paul would be quite right to omit them from his list of readers whom he had baptised.

It is often speculated that Stephanas visited Paul as a delegate of the Corinthian church, delivering the letter alluded to in 1 Corinthians 7:1 and returning with Paul's reply, 1 Corinthians. If this is correct then he was only in Ephesus temporarily, and he remained a member of the church to whom Paul wrote "I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius". This would still be sufficient to explain Stephanas's omission from Paul's list of exceptions; as Paul's messenger he was delivering rather than receiving instruction, so was not among the letter's recipients.

It will not, however, explain the omission of the members of his household from Paul's list. If Stephanas's visit to Ephesus was a brief one then at least a portion of his household would have remained in Corinth and would have been among those who received Paul's letter. For the sake of argument, let us grant that this was the case. There are still grounds to doubt that Paul was addressing members of Stephanas's household when he wrote about whom he had and had not baptised.

In 1 Corinthians 16:15 Paul reminds his readers that the members of Stephanas's household "have devoted themselves to the service of the saints". The word translated "service" here is "diakonian", which comes from the same root as "deacon", and was used to describe official church ministry even in Paul's time [G. Abbott-Smith, A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament, T&T Clark (1999), pp107-108]. He continues with an appeal, "I urge you to put yourselves at the service of such people, and of everyone who works and toils with them" [1 Corinthians 16:16].

Here Paul urges his "you"--the addressees of his instruction--to serve his "them"--the household of Stephanas, or at least those like them. This is not an instruction to the church officials to serve each other; they are doing that already. Rather, it is an instruction to the ordinary members of the congregation to serve the church's officials. As such, it is not directed at the members of the Stephanas's household, or any other leaders in the church, even though it begins with the broad entreaty, "I urge you...". In this case it is clear that Paul uses "you" in a way that excludes the members of Stephanas's household.

I suggest that this is exactly what is happening in 1 Corinthians 1:14, and perhaps throughout the entirety of the letter. 1 Corinthians is a letter of admonition to a bickering and sinning congregation. 1 Corinthians 1:14 is a response to members of the congregation claiming to belong to particular leaders in virtue of having been baptised by them. The whole section reads as follows:

Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, 'I belong to Paul', or 'I belong to Cephas', or 'I belong to Apollos', or 'I belong to Christ.' Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.

Paul's statement, then, is that of those in the congregation engaging in factionalism and leader-worship he baptised only Crispus and Gaius. Stephanas and his household, though, are exemplary Christians and officials of the church; they are not a part of the problem, or of the group, that Paul is addressing. The fact that Paul baptised them does not falsify his claim in verse fourteen.

I can see only two queries that remain to be addressed. First, if Paul is not correcting himself then why does he mention that he baptised Stephanas's household at all? This question is easily answered, particularly in the light of the foregoing discussion. Paul's mention of Stephanas's household is not a correction, but a clarification, of his earlier statement. As Countess's article demonstrates, the ambiguity surrounding his usage of "you" is potentially confusing.

Realising this, Paul makes it clear that verse fourteen is not to be taken as a denial of what many of the Corinthians knew, that he also baptized the household of Stephanas. Unfortunately, this point of clarification has only served to confuse Countess.

The second query concerns Paul's statement of uncertainty in verse sixteen. Does this not indicate that Paul is confused about whom he did and did not baptise? Again, this is unproblematic. Paul's uncertainty as to whether there are other people whom he baptised does not cast doubt on his knowledge that he baptised Crispus, Gaius, and Stephanas's household; these claims are correct and Paul knows it. Neither does his uncertainty cast doubt on his knowledge that of those he is addressing he baptised only Crispus and Gaius.

Paul's uncertainty is as to whether there are other cases like that of Stephanas's household, cases which might be thought to be excluded by his statement that he baptized none of his readers except Crispus and Gaius, but which in fact are not. Verse sixteen does not retract the claim of verse fourteen, and, pace Countess, Paul does not correct or contradict himself here.

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