Bible Question:

Is polygamy supported by 1 Corinthians 7:2?

Bible Answer:

Some polygamists want us to believe that God approves of polygamy. They claim that 1 Corinthians 7:2 reveals that husbands can have multiple wives, but wives can have only one husband.

But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband. 1 Corinthians 7:2 (NASB)

In support of their viewpoint, they point out that two different Greek words for “own” are used in the verse. That is, the first English word “own” is translated from the Greek word heautou and the second “own” is translated from the Greek word idios. Polygamists claim that heautou implies simple ownership, but idios implies exclusive ownership. That is, husbands can possess many wives, but wives can have only one husband. But their claim is in error due to a misunderstanding in the meaning of the Greek words and the context of the passage.

Is Polygamy Biblical?

Meaning of “His Own Wife”

The first reason polygamists are wrong is that they misrepresent the meaning of the two Greek words translated as “own” in this passage. The first English word “own” is translated from the Greek word heautou, which is a reflexive pronoun referring back to itself. This personal pronoun is normally translated as himself, herself, themselves, or itself, depending on the case. In 1 Corinthians 7:2 the pronoun is in the genitive case, implying ownership. Therefore, we are being told that the husband owns the wife as his possession.

In Ephesians 5:28 we discover that when a husband loves his own (heautou) wife, he actually loves himself. That is, it implies heautou can have a strong possessive quality.

Meaning of “Her Own Husband”

The Greek word idios is a possessive pronoun and also has the sense of ownership. Ceslas Spicq and James D. Ernest state,

Idios, idia are similarly used for persons in a way synonymous with a simple possessive, notably with regard to members of a family: one’s own brother and sister, mother, father (John 5:18; Josephus, Ant. 1.230; 9.99), spouse, son or daughter.[1]

Some Greek lexicons state that idios means “being the exclusive property of someone—‘one’s own, one’s property.” However, at the time 1 Corinthians was written, idios was weakened.

Whether used as adjective, noun, or adverb, this term means “peculiar to, particular, private,” but its sense is weakened in the Koine, where it is usually equivalent to a possessive.[2]

Robertson and Plummer state that the difference between heautou and idios was becoming blurred.[3]

1 Corinthians 7:2 Does Not Teach Polygamy 

Polygamists want us to believe that 1 Corinthians 7:2 reveals God approves of polygamy. They state that the relationship between the husband and wife are different and, supposedly, heautou and idios reveal a difference in ownership. However, they miss the most obvious point that idios reveals the husband is the exclusive property of the wife. The family is the property of the husband.

Notice that even though the meaning of heautou and idios are relatively close in meaning, idios still has a weakened sense of “private.” That is, the husband is possessed by the wife. He is her exclusive property. Notice that Mark 4:34 is a good example of idios. 

. . . and He did not speak to them without a parable; but He was explaining everything privately to His own disciples. Mark 4:34 (NASB)

Jesus’ disciples were His disciples. They were not the disciples of another teacher.Therefore, the husband is the exclusive property of the wife. No other woman owns him.

In addition, note that 1 Corinthians 7:4 reveals that the body of the husband belongs to the wife and the wife’s body belongs to the husband.

The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. 1 Corinthians 7:4 (NASB)

The two English words “own” come from the same Greek word which is idios. That is, each spouse’s body is the exclusive property of the other spouse. The husband and wife are not independent of one another.

Conclusion:

Note the following statements from outstanding biblical scholars. Each quote explains that 1 Corinthians 7:2 does not support the practice of polygamy. The first quote states that heautou refers to the husband’s role as leader of the family and idios refers to the wife’s role within the family.

The variation heautou gun . . . idios andra distinguishes the husband as the head and principal (xi.3) . . .[4]

The next quote reveals that 1 Corinthians 7:2 actually supports the biblical principle of monogamy and not polygamy.

his own  . . .her own. The use of the possessive reflexive pronoun heautou and the adjective idion imply monogamy, one of the few biblical passages supporting this condition., which has been generally assumed by the church.[5]

C. K. Barrett quotes Lightfoot who states that 1 Corinthians 7:2 is,

“an incidental prohibition of polygamy” – Lightfoot[6]

In conclusion, 1 Corinthians 7:2 does not reveal that God approves of polygamy. Instead, men and women have abandoned God’s will and multiplied wives and husbands to themselves. Consequently, men and women who have entered into polygamy are in clear violation of God’s will (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6; Hebrews 13:7, 17). God does not approve of polygamy.

 

References:

1. Ceslas Spicq and James D. Ernest, Theological Lexicon of the New Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), 209.

2.  Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 557–558.

3. Robertson and Plummer. 1 Corinthians. The International Critical Commentary. T&T Clark. 1994. p. 133.

4. W. Robertson Nicoll.  The Expositor’s Greek Testament. Eerdmans Publishing. vol. 2, p. 823.

5. Orr and Walther. 1 Corinthians. The Anchor Bible. Doubleday. 1976. p. 206.

6. C.K. Barrett. The First Epistle to the Corinthians..Blacks’s New Testament Commentary. Hendrickson. 1968.  p. 155.

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