Paul's own marital status
To better understand Paul's meaning, we should first establish his own marital state. Michael Baigent says, in The Jesus Papers, page 107, that 1 Corinthians 9:5 makes it clear that both Paul and Peter (Kephas) were married:
Do we not have the right to take along a Christian wife, as do the
rest of the apostles, and the brothers of the Lord, and Kephas?
1 Corinthians 7:6 seems to mean that Paul was unmarried or (more likely in view of 1 Cor. 9:5) widowed, yet Bishop Clement of Alexandria wrote (Clement’s Stromata, Book III, vi:53):
Even Paul did not hesitate in one letter to address his consort. The
only reason why he did not take her about with him was that it would
have been an inconvenience for his ministry. Accordingly he says in a
letter: "Have we not a right to take about with us a wife that is a
sister like the other apostles?"
We may conclude that if Paul was single and celibate, then he could have a negative view of marriage, but as he was either married or widowed at the time he wrote he might have regarded marriage as meritorious.
Paul's message in Chapter 7
Chapter 7 begins by dealing with morality and marriage, with Paul saying that marriage is necessary in order to avoid immorality and giving instructions for marriage partners. It then moves on to other issues, best summarised in verse 20: "
Everyone should remain in the state in which he was called."
Paul believed that Christ would return within his own lifetime, as we see most clearly in (1 Thessalonians 4:17) "Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together ..." He believed that decisions people make in the short time they had left before the parousia could cause difficulties. If at all possible, people should maintain the status quo, while they awaited the imminent return of Jesus. We will see that he refers not only to the marriage state, but also other significant social states of a person.
In 1 Cor. 7:7-8, he says the unmarried (possibly 'widows') and widowers should remain unmarried if they can, but it is better to marry than to be on fire.
In verses 7:10-14, he says the married should remain together if possible, even if one spouse is a non-believer.
Verse 18: "Was someone called after he had been circumcised? He should not try to undo his circumcision. Was an uncircumcised person called? He should not be circumcised."
Verses 21-23: A slave should accept his position, but make the most of it if he is freed.
Once again in 1 Cor. 7:24, Paul says: "Brothers, everyone should continue before God in the state in which he was called."
Verses 25-26: Because of the present distress Paul thinks virgins should remain as they are. "The present distress" appears to be a reference to the imminent parousia, but in any case qualifies Paul's advice, which is consequent on the present distress and not a fundamental preference.
Verse 27: "Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek a separation. Are you free of a wife? Then do not look for a wife." Here he is being neutral as to either state, as long as the status quo is maintained.
In verse 28, he does not compel his people to maintain the status quo, but tells them that by not doing so they will create trouble for themselves: "If you marry, however, you do not sin, nor does an unmarried woman sin if she marries; but such people will experience affliction in their earthly life, and I would like to spare you that. "
Then in verses 29-31, we see the reason for this: "
I tell you, brothers, the time is running out ... For the world in its present form is passing away."
So, from an exegetical point of view, Paul was not saying the state of virginity is more meritorious than that of marriage. He was asking the people to maintain their present status in readiness for the parousia. This is more in line with the Protestant position expressed.