The woman was appalled at the audacity of this white-skinned newcomer. “How dare her attempt to instruct us on issues of morality. Why, look at her. It is indecent! Outrageous! A scandal! Imagine not covering one’s legs before coming out into public.”

Of course, the white woman (missionary) was just as appalled at the female “natives” who dared to come out into public with their breasts uncovered.

The challenge is that the Bible commands women to “dress modestly” (1 Timothy 2:9) but nowhere defines what, exactly, modestly means. The literalist says, “It means what it says and says what it means.” If that is our approach then our women had better stop braiding their hair, wearing gold or pearls, and wearing “expensive” clothing.

The term conscience traditionally refers to the part of a human being that distinguishes right from wrong. Our conscience has been educated not only by the Word of God but also by our culture. Sometimes it is impossible for us to discern the difference.

It shocks some that when Paul encounters a divergence of conscience among disciples he does not suggest that both parties merely “go read the Bible.” What Paul does teach is that disciples can have an equal allegiance to the authority of Scripture and yet still differ on many matters of conscience. Modesty to the western missionary woman means one thing; modesty to the indigenous female means quite another. What violates the conscience of one has no effect on the conscience of the other.

Is there any way these two can become and remain sisters in Christ with such divergent consciences? Asked another way, is there a “correct” (albeit secret or hidden) definition that we must all discover in order to be right with God? Is that what religion is all about then, seeking the “right” answer to all of these questions? If our answer to this question is yes then we must consider carefully what that says about the God who requires but nowhere gives us the “right” answer to these questions.

Rather than reach a conclusion that maligns the character of God (and destroys all chance of us ever having that “Blessed Assurance” about which we sing), I encourage us to openly examine Paul’s practical and liberating teaching on this issue.

Again, Romans 14:1 – 15:13 and 1 Corinthians 10:23 – 11:1 become extremely important–and useful–passages of Scripture for God’s people.

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