Is, according to St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 7, the state of virginity more meritorious than that of marriage? Catholics think it is, and some (all?) Protestants think it is not. Why?

For example, the Council of Trent says:

Canon X.—If any one saith, that the marriage state is to be placed above the state of virginity, or of celibacy, and that it is not better and more blessed to remain in virginity, or in celibacy, than to be united in matrimony: let him be anathema.

  • Are you looking for strictly Catholic answers?
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Oct 25, 2014 at 23:57
  • @curiousdannii: No, but it would be helpful to specify who believes the answers you give.
    – Geremia
    Commented Oct 26, 2014 at 0:00
  • According to Paul its because the married spend their time trying to please their spouse, or worrying about pleasing their spouse, rather than God. He says that explicitly. (Verses 32-35) Commented Oct 26, 2014 at 0:00
  • 1
    @curiousdannii: He doesn't. I've modified the question to reflect what I said in my previous comment.
    – Geremia
    Commented Oct 26, 2014 at 0:34
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    Paul is talking about marriage not sex. It's easy to conflate the two issues, but they are not the same. Paul favors non-marriage. That is only related to sex in that sex is considered immoral outside of marriage.
    – user3961
    Commented Oct 26, 2014 at 16:47

4 Answers 4


Short answer - No.

If you are just looking at what Paul is saying, then more 'meritorious' is an incorrect choice of words to describe his encouragement towards choosing celibacy ahead of marriage. His language that either state comes as a "gift from the Lord" (verse 7) is very much against the sense of either condition attracting any merit.

Bearing in mind that Paul prefaces his instructions in this area with the acknowledgement that he has "no command from the Lord, but I give a judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy" (verse 25 NIV), a more appropriate word to characterize his reasons for his instruction derivable from verses 26 and 29 ("Because of the present crisis..."/"...the time is short") is expediency.

ie. Paul argues that in view of the present circumstances (the prevalance of persecution now and increasing with the expected approach of the Lord's return), celibacy is more expedient for the avoidance of unnecessary suffering than the state of marriage.

Additional weight (via application of the 'scripture interprets scripture' hermeneutic) to a rejection of using 'merit' in the sense proferred, is found by examining another passage of scripture that is commonly interpreted as dealing with this issue:

10 The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”

11 Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.” - Matthew 19:10-12 NIV (emphasis added)

Although, some 'choose' the celibate life for the sake of the kingdom, verse 11 states explicitly that they can only do this because it has 'been given' to them to do so - ie. it is a grace gift and therefore the choice or state should not be considered through the lens of merit.

  • Are you saying marriage is more meritorious because there is no "avoidance of unnecessary suffering" in that state?
    – Geremia
    Commented Jan 29, 2019 at 20:15
  • No. I certainly didn't say that. If anything, that position is also argued against where marriage is likewise acknowledged as a gift from the Lord. In general, Protestants will shy away from using "meritorious" in just about any context as anything praiseworthy, whether it be a choice or an action, necessarily relies on being lead and empowered by the Holy Spirit to do so. Commented Jan 31, 2019 at 13:44

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.


Yes, according to 1 Corinthians 7 it is better not to marry, if you are strong enough to stay free from sexual sin. According to verses 32-34, one who is not married has more time and energy to care for the things of the Lord. This applies universally to all people, whether there is persecution or not.

1 Corinthians 7:32-34
"32 But I would have you without carefulness. He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord: 33 But he that is married careth for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife. 34 There is difference also between a wife and a virgin. The unmarried woman careth for the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit: but she that is married careth for the things of the world, how she may please her husband."


"Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord." (1 Corinthians 11:11)

There are numerous scriptures in the bible that state man and woman are twain without each other, but united are "one flesh"

Genesis 2:24
"Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh."

Matthew 19:5-6
"And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh? Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder."

Ephesians 5:31
"For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh."

Modern revelation tells us that the covenant of eternal marriage is necessary for exaltation (D&C 131:1-4), so no, it would not be more meritorious for a man to choose a celibate life over marriage. That being said, there may be some that the Lord does not expect to be married, the Lord knows. We are all given our free agency, there may be some that choose not to participate in the everlasting covenant of marriage, let all men worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own conscience (see 11th Article of Faith).

While sexual immorality was common in ancient Corinth, some people there held the opposite belief—that it was “good for a man not to touch a woman,” and therefore one should refrain from all sexual relations, even in marriage (1 Corinthians 7:1).

Paul’s advice that “I would that all men were even as I myself” and “it is good for them if they abide even as I” (1 Corinthians 7:7–8) have led some to mistakenly believe that Paul was unmarried and promoted the celibate lifestyle as being superior to marriage. However, Paul probably was married or had been at some point. Most scholars acknowledge that Paul was either a member of the Jewish ruling body—the Sanhedrin—or a close associate of the group (see Acts 8:3; 9:1–2; 22:5; 26:10). To comply with the Sanhedrin’s membership requirements, Paul would have to be married. Even if Paul was simply a representative of the Sanhedrin, he would have been expected to be in harmony with all accepted Jewish customs and therefore be married. In addition, Paul clearly taught the importance of marriage and family life (see 1 Corinthians 7:2; 11:11; Ephesians 5:21–6:4; 1 Timothy 3:2).

  • Wasn't St. Paul a Pharisee?
    – Geremia
    Commented Oct 27, 2014 at 2:28
  • There is dispute over whether the sanhedrin was comprised of Sadducees, Pharisees, or both (Encyclopedia Britannica). He was a Jewish official either way.
    – ShemSeger
    Commented Oct 27, 2014 at 2:35
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    Although to many observers, it would be obvious (particularly from your citation of the Doctrines and Covenants) that you are writing from a Mormon perspective here, it would be helpful for the sake of those who aren't so aware, that you be more explicit. Commented Oct 27, 2014 at 14:21
  • @Geremia According to John 3:1, a Pharisee could be a member of the Sanhedrin. Commented Oct 27, 2014 at 15:00
  • @bruisedreed: So, not necessarily, though.
    – Geremia
    Commented Oct 27, 2014 at 19:21

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