I do not write this out of any concern that gambling is necessarily a widespread practice among Christians, though I would not be surprised to find it so, since “Do not be conformed to this age” does not appear to be energetically pursued today. I write, instead, because I am surprised at the virtual silence on the question of the propriety of gambling among professing Christians. If the culture itself pursues gambling without restraint and Christians say nothing about the matter, we will likely find ourselves defaulting to the culture’s practice.
A word of history: in my own lifetime, gambling was initially only legal in Nevada; then, some years later it became legal in New Jersey, and by the third millennium it was legal nearly everywhere. A teenager today would probably be surprised to discover that gambling was ever illegal, since he has been reared in a culture where it is basically legal everywhere and is a significant source of income for many states. What the late Peter Berger called “plausibility structures” have changed profoundly in a single generation. When I was a teenager (and later), the only state that had legal gambling also had legal prostitution, a practice that, presumably, all Christians recognized to be a violation of the seventh commandment. Insofar as cultures develop plausibility structures, our culture once made legal gambling no more plausible than prostitution, and now it makes it very plausible.
The historic confessing churches, however, have not regarded gambling to be morally innocent. Here are portions of the Westminster Larger Catechism questions and answers 141 and 142 that pertain to the matter:
Q: What are the duties required in the eighth commandment?
A: . . . a lawful calling, and diligence in it; . . . and an endeavor, by all just and lawful means, to procure, preserve, and further the wealth and outward estate of others, as well as our own. (WLC 141)
Q: What are the sins forbidden in the eighth commandment?
A: The sins forbidden in the eighth commandment, besides the neglect of the duties required, are, . . . all other unjust or sinful ways of taking or withholding from our neighbor what belongs to him, . . . as likewise idleness, prodigality, wasteful gaming; and all other ways whereby we do unduly prejudice our own outward estate, . . . (WLC 142)
The use of the term “lawful calling” in the WLC implies the existence of non-lawful calling, otherwise, the Assembly would merely have said, “diligence in one’s calling.” Surely the Assembly would have rejected gambling as a lawful calling, that is, as a lawful or productive means of securing the necessities of life. Gambling produces nothing—it grows no crops, builds no buildings, crafts no shoes, sews no shirts. At a minimum, this statement would have outlawed professional gambling, and any gambling that was an alternative (or significant supplement) to a lawful calling.
Furthermore, an “endeavor . . . to procure, preserve, and further the wealth and outward estate of others, as well as our own” is hardly consistent with gambling. Unlike lawful employment, gamblers only win when others lose—there is no win-win in gambling. If Gordon wins, those he gambles with lose. Gordon simply cannot “further the outward estate of others,” as well as his own when he gambles for any significant amount of money. Any furthering of Gordon’s estate, say by a thousand dollars, requires removing a thousand dollars from someone else’s estate. Any fantasy Gordon fosters about winning big requires that someone else lose, and it is uncharitable for Gordon to wish that anyone else lose money.
In WLC answer 142, it is almost certain that “wasteful gaming” was the seventeenth-century expression for what we call gambling. The word gamble did not exist at the time the Assembly met (1643–53). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “The verb has not been found till about 1775–86. . . . The word is probably a dialectical survival of an altered form of Middle English gamene-n. . . to sport, play.” The Assembly uses the term wasteful gaming, to distinguish it from lawful play or gaming. In all likelihood, what the Catechism prohibited is what we call gambling, which is as wasteful as wasteful could possibly be. Such gaming is regarded as wasteful because it is unproductive. If a farmer tills soil, by contrast, his labor is (at least potentially) productive. Gamblers, however, produce nothing. Even the winners do so by taking from the losers, therefore the enterprise itself produces nothing (i.e., it is wasteful gaming). If Gordon spends fifty dollars of his income on groceries, he aids his family with nourishment; if Gordon gambles away fifty dollars, his family loses that amount in groceries.
Though not expressly stated in answers 141 and 142, the statements that compare our estate to that of others imply the biblical rule of loving one’s neighbor. If my only gain can come at my neighbor’s loss, how is this loving my neighbor? By contrast, if I mow my neighbor’s lawn and he pays me twenty dollars, neither party loses, and each party gains. The last commandment prohibits coveting anything that is your neighbor’s. Does not gambling constitute such coveting?
The Reformed tradition—both before and after the Assembly—appears to prohibit what we call gambling. William à Brackel (1635–1711), for example, was a Dutch contemporary of the Assembly, who addressed the matter in the third of his four-volume The Christian’s Reasonable Service (1700):
Fourthly, the outcome of the casting of the lot—which the gambler hopes to be to his advantage—is not in the hands of the player; and yet he is hopeful. In whom does he put his hope—in the devil? No. Is it fate (which the heathen designate as an idol) as if it were able to bring something about? No. Does one expect it then from the dice? Then one designates them to be his God. It is abominable to expect any happiness from any other source than God. (pp. 123–128)
In 1818, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church addressed the matter:
The vice of gambling has also been forced upon our attention. We indeed hope that few, or perhaps none, of our actual professors have indulged themselves in the practice of what they consider as coming under the denomination of gambling. . . . But it is our duty further to testify that all encouragement of lotteries and purchasing of lottery tickets, all attendance on horse-racing, and betting on such or any other occasions, and all attempts of whatever kind to acquire gain without giving an equivalent, involve the gambling principle, and participate in the guilt which attaches to that vice.1
Similarly, Southern Presbyterian theologian Robert Lewis Dabney addressed the matter with equal firmness: “To take your neighbor’s property in a game of chance is theft, for you give no quid pro quo. Does one say that the loser surrenders his property voluntarily? The answer is that his consent is one which he has no right to give, because it is prompted by an immoral motive, namely: the hope of plundering his rival.” 2
The various statements about “wealth,” “outward estate,” et al., leave open the possibility that financially inconsequential (penny-ante?) gambling might fall outside of the Assembly’s prohibitions; I leave that to others to decide, as their conscience permits. I probably regard all penny-ante gambling as a gateway to larger gambling and so refrain from it myself, but I accept that the conscience of others might lead otherwise. When young people in my neighborhood stand at our front door asking us to purchase raffle tickets for a High School team or band, I just donate a little money and decline the raffle tickets. If it is a worthy cause, I should contribute for that reason, and not take from the pot a portion of what would otherwise have gone to the worthy cause; but again, I leave it to others’ consciences to decide those matters.
One might almost desire a return to the language of the mid-seventeenth century: “wasteful gaming” comprehends not only what we call gambling, but other forms of gaming or sport that are wasteful (and, possibly, some types of financial speculation, since the Assembly expressly prohibited “engrossing commodities”). For example, I have significant reservations about professional sports. It is difficult for me to justify my purchasing a ticket to any of our major sports, though I do not judge those whose consciences permit their doing so. This may seem odd in our culture, but recall that Robert Tyre (Bobby) Jones was the first to win the Grand Slam of golf, and he did so as an amateur, because professional golfers were regarded by him (and most of his generation) as loafers who did not pursue a lawful calling. It was considered by them to be dishonest labor (wasteful gaming?), not labor at all—grown men playing a game rather than doing something productive. Bobby Jones was an attorney by profession, and played his game (better than anyone else at his time) as a hobby.
My concern, as indicated at the beginning of this brief essay, was not and is not that I believe gambling is a widespread issue among Christian believers. Rather, my concern is that such a profoundly significant aspect of our contemporary culture seems hardly to be addressed by Christians at all. I do not know how I can gamble, in hopes of attaining my neighbor’s money, without first coveting that which is my neighbor’s, which is precisely what the last commandment prohibits: anything that is your neighbor’s. I do not know how we can evade the conclusion that gambling violates both the eighth and tenth commandments.
©T. David Gordon. All Rights Reserved.
- The Presbyterian Digest of 1886. A Compend of the Acts and Deliverances of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, compiled by William E. Moore (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1886), 301.
- Robert Lewis Dabney, The Practical Philosophy (1897; repr., Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1984), 485.
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