Baptism and the True Church
1 Corinthians 1:13 says,
13 Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?
Paul was concerned over the mindset of denominationalist thinking. Each faction thought of itself as the “true church,” not realizing that it was usurping the place of Christ. The Roman Catholic view is that it is the “true church” and that its bishop is the “vicar of Christ.” It is the primary manifestation of King Saul.
A vicar is a substitute or deputy, one who takes the place of another. There are two kinds of vicars. There are usurpers like Saul and stewards like David. Saul ruled Israel by his own will; David sought the will of God in all things. Saul’s reign prophesied of the condition of the church in the Pentecostal Age, commonly known as the “church age,” so all church denominations can be viewed as part of the household of Saul.
Christianity as a whole has been little more than a carnal religion most of the time. Division is the symptom; the inability to hear God’s voice and to know the will of God is the cause. But each thinks that it is right and that the others are wrong. The problem today is merely an extension of what we see in the first-century Corinthian church.
Paul put his finger on the problem by telling them that Paul had not been crucified for any man. By extension, neither had Peter nor Apollos. To follow men is to attribute to them what Christ has done for us, thereby usurping the place of Christ. No denomination on earth is the “true church,” because the men who founded those organizations were not crucified for the people, nor did they pay the penalty for the sin of any man. No matter how good they may have been, they were not spotless lambs, so they were not qualified to take the place of Christ. An organization should point to Christ, not to itself.
The Vicarious Element in Baptism
Paul finds it necessary to remind the Corinthian believers of the meaning of baptism. None of them had been baptized in the name of Paul, but in the name of Jesus Christ. Romans 6:3 says,
3 Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death?
Baptism is a public statement that a believer identifies with Christ in His mission to die on the cross to pay the penalty for sin. In that sense, Jesus was our Vicar, our substitute, who was called to die on our behalf to pay the penalty for the sin of every man and woman in the world. His sacrifice was foreshadowed by every sacrifice in previous millennia, by which lambs, goats, bulls, and doves had been killed on the altars to cover the sins of the people.
A vicar is the object of faith. In past times, men had faith in animal sacrifices as types of Christ. Today we have faith in Christ as our Vicarious Sacrifice. But when men make other men their vicars, they imply faith in men, rather than in Christ. Faith is transferred from Christ to men and their organizations. This is seen primarily when a religious organization requires that one must join their denomination and submit to their leaders (as vicars) in order to have a genuine relationship with Christ. They forbid anyone the right to have an independent and direct relationship with Christ. The underlying claim of a denomination that calls itself the “true church” is that it has been given the authority to stand in the gate with the “keys of the Kingdom,” allowing or disallowing access to Christ.
The Old Testament pattern sets forth an earthly high priest to represent God to the people and to represent the people to God. Jesus Christ took that role as our faithful High Priest. But ambitious men coveted the same position, so they created a second high priest among men, contrary to the biblical pattern. There was only one high priest in the Old Testament instructions. Likewise, in the New Testament Paul says in 1 Tim. 2:5,
5 For there is one God and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.
There are not two mediators. If a second is set up, he or she is a usurper. Hence, the Virgin Mary, bless her heart, has been set up as a Mediatrix, not because she usurped the position, but because men set her up as a usurper. The same was being done in the Corinthian church with Paul, Peter, and Apollos. Hence, Paul reminded them that he had not died for any man, nor had anyone been baptized into his name. No doubt his followers thought that they were honoring Paul, but Paul did not want such honor, because it usurped the place of Christ.
The True Church
So Paul continued, saying in 1 Cor. 1:14-17,
14 I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 that no man should say you were baptized in my name. 16 Now I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any other. 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech, that the cross of Christ should not be made void.
Paul had every right to baptize people, and he did so occasionally. But when the denominational problem arose, he was glad that he had allowed or instructed other people to baptize new believers. Apparently, the people thought that they were to follow the one who had baptized them. It seems that the people thought that they were being baptized into a man-led church, rather than into Christ’s body, which is “the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven” (Heb. 12:23).
The same is often true today. People are baptized into the denominational church which they think is the “true church,” thus confusing church membership rolls with being enrolled in heaven. In fact, denominations often make it clear that their own membership rolls are identical to the membership records in heaven. This type of thinking is what Paul fought against, because it usurped the place of Christ and caused the church to divide into factions, each claiming to be the “true church.”
There is no denomination on earth that is the “true church.” No earthly leader has the right to determine who is and who is not a true believer whose name is written in the heavenly records. Men may discern such things, if God reveals the hearts of men, but men do not have the authority to determine who is and who is not a true believer.
Paul concludes that he was not sent to baptize, but to preach the gospel. This statement may seem a bit strange, because baptism has its importance in the spread of the gospel. Paul was letting the Corinthians know that he was not duty-bound to baptize those who believed the gospel through his preaching. They could be baptized by anyone, because it was not the baptizer who was important. No one was being baptized into the name of the baptizer. The baptizer was baptizing people into the name of Christ Jesus, not into his own name. The baptizer, after all, was only God’s steward who acted in the name of his Master.
When denominations lay claim to the exclusive right to baptize, they are usurping the place of Christ. Most, of course, would deny this, but in practice, this exclusive claim really means that the people are being baptized into the church organization. That is precisely the problem that arose in Paul’s day.
Paul then describes his gospel by saying, “not in cleverness of speech, that the cross of Christ should not be made void.” Paul was not trying to compete with Peter and Apollos by seeing who could be the most eloquent and talented speaker. Good speakers tend to gather the most followers. Paul did not want to attract followers by good rhetoric, but by the plain truth and the witness of the Holy Spirit.
To attract people by “cleverness of speech” was to encourage people to follow men. This in turn caused new believers to think that they were being baptized into the names of men other than Christ Jesus and thereby into factions or denominations. This is what makes void the cross of Christ, for if men are baptized into church organizations, then they are not really baptized into Christ Jesus at all. In such cases, men form direct, personal relationships with the church or with leaders, and their relationship with Christ is indirect.
These distinctions may seem subtle, but they are vital. We must understand Paul’s objection here and see why this was the first problem that Paul addressed in this letter to Corinth. This problem alarmed him even more than problems of immorality, church discipline, meat sacrificed to idols, and other disputes. Paul did not want the believers to set him up as a vicar of Christ, and by implication, the same held true with Peter and Apollos.
Even the “Christ” faction, though correct on its surface, was equally wrong if the people used it to set up another denomination, calling it the “true church.” Calling an earthly organization the Church of Christ does not make it the true Church whose membership roll is in heaven. The right label does not make it the true church. God looks at the heart. Virtually all earthly church organizations claim Christ as the head of the church, but most of it is lip service. In the end, they give their own leaders the right to determine who is and who is not a true believer, usually based upon their own membership records.
This problem has characterized the Christian religion for many centuries. What began in the first century has only worsened over the centuries. There have been many revivals, where the Holy Spirit has sought to make Christianity a way of life, but men have found ways to institutionalize the Holy Spirit and turn His good work into another form of Christian religion. It is said that a denomination is a monument to a past revival—that is, a denomination is a memorial to a past revival that died out a long time ago.
The solution is to be a steward of the gospel, not a usurper. The solution is to point to Christ, not to one’s self as a minister of the word. The solution is to teach people to hear God’s voice for themselves, so that they are not dependent upon men to hear God for them. The solution is to teach everyone that the people are the church, and that any and all earthly organizations ought to set men free, rather than to put men into spiritual bondage to themselves.