Regarding Gambling

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.

Endnotes

  1. 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.
  2. Robert Lewis Dabney, The Practical Philosophy (1897; repr., Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1984), 485.

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    Dr. T. David Gordon is a teaching elder in The Presbytery of the Ascension. Before retirement, he taught at Gordon-Conwell Seminary (1984–98) and Grove City College (1999–2021).

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11 comments

  1. This might be a bit of a stretch but is one not guilty by association when one invests in a retirement fund which in turn buys positions in financial schemes which are predatory. For instance, the terms of call for a Pastor is that his calling congregation contributes a portion of his call into a retirement fund. The fund investors then buy positions in Phillip Morris, a tobacco company that intentionally preys on buyers by putting physically addictive chemicals in their product. The gains derived from the investment then go to allow the Pastor to retire at the age of maturity in the plan. Has not that Pastor gained from the defrauding and plundering the estate of his neighbor?

    • This is a difficult issue I think. It is certainly possible to avoid predatory investments, but it is typically more risky (less diversified) and historically yields lower returns than agnostic index fund investing. The problem is more pervasive than many let on. One can be resigned to keeping their money in a savings account, but your bank can (and does) leverage against your savings to fund construction and operation of countless immoral enterprises.

      Some Christian groups manage to avoid it by using only local banks and investing only in businesses, farms, and other real estate of which they have personal knowledge. Here I’m thinking of Anabaptists in Lancaster County, PA, and their relationships with the local banks there.

  2. AMEN! Here’s a firsthand account, showing that gambling is “kosher” to a sizeable segment of godly folks: A few years back I worked with women from several area churches — including an Anglican one — conducting worship services at local nursing homes. The Anglican church regularly set up fellowship lunches at various restaurants…but THIS time it made reservations at an eatery housed in the big-name CASINO just up the road!

    I sent an email appeal to “Father Bob” and his wife which read in part: “I am far from being a rigid believer-formalist! But the selection of an eatery at a gambling-empire institution for a Christian fellowship gathering is wrong. It may serve to alienate folks as a “stumbling block” in addition to grieving the Holy Spirit. / From https://www.crosswalk.com/faith/spiritual-life/what-does-the-bible-say-about-gambling-1201620.html: J. Kerby Anderson, author, lecturer and adjunct professor at Dallas Theological Seminary…discerns guidance by contrasting the cornerstone principles of the Scriptures with those associated with gambling… According to Anderson, “The Bible emphasizes the sovereignty of God (Matt. 10:29-30), while gambling is based upon chance. The Bible admonishes us to work creatively and for the benefit of others (Eph. 4:28), while gambling fosters a “something for nothing” attitude. The Bible condemns materialism (Matt. 6:24 25), while gambling promotes it.”(1) Please prayerfully reconsider this choice…”

    The response was Anglican crickets…not a word in reply! But I’m glad to report that several other women didn’t go — yet clearly the rest saw nothing amiss in the choice of venue. Guess the Christian walk becomes an amble when we gamble?

  3. This is a truly thought-provoking article. And I think the point the author makes goes beyond gambling. What are we to make, for example, of Multi-Marketing Level ventures? In the end, isn’t it an attempt to live off the labor of others? It’s called “passive” income for a reason, and I would think that the passivity would lie in the crosshairs of the statements found in the Standards.

    My two cents, with compound interest.

  4. William, thank you for raising the question of guilt-by-association.

    I am neither an economist nor a financier; as regards either, I am merely a layperson, whose insights enjoy no technical competence in either arena. I am troubled a little, however, by the conversations I have had through the years with Finance professionals who are also believers, because few (none?) of them have ever raised the ethical question of “making money” by speculation, rather than by otherwise-productive labor.

    In the early days of the digital world, for example, a Christian friend of mine abandoned his (successful) medical practice, because he had discovered how western markets influenced Asian markets (or vice-versa), and he and others found an algorithm by which they had a one-hour window (twice daily, as I recall) in which they could move investments from the one to the other with an almost-certain guarantee of profitability (I think this had something to do with the international dateline, but I am unsure). He spent the remainder of his career making substantial money from this practice, rather than from practicing medicine. I am fairly confident that he continued to give money generously to his local church, which, to my knowledge, had no qualms with his abandoning a medical practice to speculate on international markets. Obviously, I conceal both his name and that of his church, lest I violate the ninth commandment.

    Here are a few thoughts I have entertained through the years, in no particular order of importance:

    1. By the second half of the twentieth century, many/most publicly-traded firms began to diversify, in order to protect themselves from the possibility of catastrophic financial losses due to industry changes or lawsuits. One American pharmaceutical firm owned Sergeant’s flea collars, for instance, so that when coughs were down and fleas were up, they were still profitable (analogous to the veterinarian who was also a taxidermist, so that, either way, you got your dog back!). When Firm A purchased Firm B, it also purchased all of the firms that once belonged to Firm B, and, before long, almost no publicly-traded corporations were ethically “pure,” in any Christian sense of the term.

    2. Near the end of the twentieth century, many/most publicly-traded firms no longer issued only an annual report to their stockholders. Reports were made quarterly, and, by the third millennium, were daily reported on the Internet. Firms that were formerly profitable often had a bad quarter or two, which they compensated for in other quarters, so their investors were satisfied with annual profit. But firms eventually lost this luxury, and had to be almost perpetually profitable, to avoid/evade a stock scare; and this reality also propelled them into business relations with probably-unsavory ties.

    3. I would guess that the managers of Social Security invest in more than merely T-bills and crooked Congressmen; they probably also invest in many corporations that conduct shady business. But our money is taken out of our paychecks involuntarily and is invested in such businesses, whether we tax-payers like it or not.

    4. Like it or not, the nearly-unanimous consent of medieval and Reformation theologians believed that loaning money with interest was considered to be usury and a violation of God’s law (The reasoning behind the Mosaic condemnation of usury was this: If a wealthy Israelite had enough resources to loan some to other, needy Israelites, he should regard them as brothers, and assist them in their need without compensation, a rationale that strikes me as being sound). We now live in a society in which it is nearly impossible to avoid being a participant in this practice; we may not loan money with interest, but we do borrow it with interest, and are therefore complicit in what nearly all Christian ethicists have regarded as a sinful practice.

    One result of the above-mentioned realities was/is that few (if any) publicly-traded corporations are morally pure; nearly all (if not all) have ties to something that does not accord with the Larger Catechism. The good news, however, is that sin is neither Covid nor Cooties; we do not “catch” it just by being near it. We “catch” it when we condone or approve it. For all I know, my Vanguard account may be partly invested in casinos; and if it isn’t currently so, it may become so tomorrow. But those decisions are almost entirely out of my hands, and are probably unavoidable, as Paul instructed the Corinthians: “…since then you would need to go out of the world” (1 Cor. 5:10). If, on the other hand, I chose to travel to Las Vegas with the intention of gambling thousands of dollars, in hopes that the “god” of Fate would smile on me more than the true and living God, I believe that would constitute a sin.

    tdg

    • Thanks so much. Perhaps counting cards to defraud the casino might also be a bit ignoble.🤣

    • I once visited a friend in Kingman, AZ by flying into Las Vegas (the nearest airport) and taking a shuttle to Kingman. Everyone else in the shuttle van had been visiting Las Vegas to gamble. The shuttle driver knew his community, and his comments were eye-opening. (I wondered if the gamblers were listening.) At one bridge or high-rise building after another he would point and say someone had jumped there; after pointing to the spot of death, he would tell of a story of this businessman taking out a second mortgage on his house to gamble, losing it all, and jumping; or a man embezzling from his company and deciding to get back what he had stolen by gambling, and losing even more and shooting himself.

      My dad would drive miles out of his way to avoid driving through Las Vegas, but I have known Christians to go there for vacation and I’ve always wondered what could possibly be attractive in that city. (I have spent time there, with a relative in the hospital, and seen it too close for comfort. It’s a flashy city, but a horridly “ugly” one.)

      I also had a relative whose husband tried (unsuccessfully) to make a living in a televised sport. When I asked how the money was “earned,” she explained that the sport was shown on TV and advertisers paid to show it, and advertisers also sponsored those who were successful. I was quite surprised, because this family was extremely anti-TV, and yet they were willing to make a living that gave nothing to anyone except some amusement on TV. But years later the wife expressed how “rude” it had been for me to ask the question of how the money was earned and then mention that the Protestant work ethic usually includes that legitimate work needs to benefit the community in some way. Her husband enjoyed the sport and that was enough. This is an extremely conservative (patriarchy lite) Christian household.

  5. Dear Mr. Hansen,
    Thank you for graciously suggesting that my essay might be “thought-provoking;” that was indeed my intention, to raise many questions about financial practices that we do not adequately (or, at least, publicly) discuss. Earlier generations (I cited just a few examples) were not so timid. Many would be surprised to know that in 1854 the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (OS) adopted as its own advice, the paper co-authored by T. E. Peck and Stuart Robinson, which denied the tithe (as a Levitical ordinance). I routinely hear presbyterian ministers referring to tithing, when the 1854 General Assembly said (in part) this:
    “So, under the gospel, the point upon which our “free will” is to be exercised is, not as to the giving, but as to the amount. God has not said, “Give me a tenth, or a twentieth, or a hundredth, or a millionth”; and it is presumption for any man to say to another, or for a church court to say to the members under its care, “You must give such and such a proportion.” It is a matter between God and the man’s own conscience. He must “give as God hath prospered him,” and of the measure of his prosperity another man has no right to judge, as he cannot know the condition of his affairs, nor how much has already been given, or is habitually given, under the solemn injunction that “the left hand shall not know what the right hand doeth.” (“Address on Systematic Beneficence,” reprinted in Peck’s Miscellanies, op. cit., vol. 1, pp. 130-145.)

    tdg

  6. I think you’re missing something very, very important here. You have properly identified the term “wasteful gaming” as being the operative term for this discussion. You spend some time defining the word “gaming” in its Early-Modern context, correctly concluding that this is basically co-extensive with the contemporary term “gambling”. But you have not done this for “wasteful,” choosing instead to supply an intuitive contemporary meaning for the word.

    I would argue that the term “wasteful” does a huge amount of work here.

    “Waste” is a legal term of art referring to a particular kind of misuse of property. Recall that, in pre-modern times, much of English property law had to do with various species of hereditary rights. “Waste” is the term for that legal wrong consisting of misusing property in one’s possession such that it diminishes or destroys the value of the property for those that stand to inherit (it’s more complicated than that, obviously, but the niceties of historical property rights are really not the point here).

    Critically, “waste” does not consist of simply mishandling the profits or revenues of a property. The presumptive heirs have no interest in those; they belong exclusively to the person presently in possession. “Waste” consists in such mishandling of the property that the value of what we would call the “principal” is diminished or destroyed. So, for example, take a parcel of ground that includes a wooded area that is used for commercial logging. If the present owner cuts down 10% of the trees, replants new saplings, and keeps what profits remain that wouldn’t be “waste.” The presumptive heirs might prefer that the present owner leave all the mature trees for the heirs, but they have no right to prevent the present owner from enjoying typical use of the property. But if the present owner were to clear-cut the property, leave it fallow, and keep the profits, that would be “waste,” as he has significantly diminished, if not outright destroyed, the value of the property to the heirs.

    I think you can see hints of that in Dabney’s language as well. Prior to the twentieth century, “property” had a far more complicated meaning than it does now. Consider the term “propertied,” which means something like “owning property and land” with the connotation of a substantial amount of either/both. So “to take your neighbor’s property,” for me, suggests taking a truly significant amount. I don’t think Dabney would use the language of “plundering [one’s] rival” if the amount of money changing hands was negligible to both parties.

    With that background in mind, the term “wasteful gaming” takes on a whole new meaning. The problem with gambling can’t be that it’s “unproductive,” because there are plenty of “unproductive” things that one would expect to be condemned as vices that aren’t. There is nothing in the Westminster Standards, nor any other Reformed credal documents of which I am aware, that prohibits spending money on pleasure as such. There are certainly problems with spending **excessively** on pleasures, spending on **immoral** pleasures (i.e., for some other reason; invoking that w/r/t gambling would be begging the question), and just generally being improvident. No argument from me there. But I just don’t see any general prohibition on spending some modest fraction of one’s money “just for fun.”

    Nor is it merely that there is an aspect of chance as such. There’s chance in everything. In the logging example, even just cutting down 10% of the trees is a risk. Who knows what could happen? It’s possible the loggers could inadvertently destroy a huge swath of the property. But that doesn’t seem all that much more likely than the whole thing going up in a forest fire caused by lightning. It doesn’t meaningfully change the overall risk profile. No, chance only becomes “wasteful” when one is exposing an irresponsible portion of one’s substance to an irresponsible degree of risk.

    Ultimately, problem with “wasteful gaming,” taking both words as a single term, is that it goes beyond the sort of judicious expenditure on entertainment that might otherwise be justified and crosses into an expenditure that eats into the material substance of the players. The prohibition on “wasteful gaming” extends not only to exposing one’s own property to irresponsible risk, but participating in games in which one cannot be confident that all the participants are behaving responsibly. Hence a low-stakes poker game amongst friends (for whatever value of “low-stakes” is appropriate in any given group) is fine. But the lottery and casinos aren’t, because those business models are predicated on large numbers of people behaving irresponsibly.

    This isn’t just guilt-by-association, either. Playing the slot machines is not exactly the same thing as taking money directly from the pocket of the poor destitute sucker blowing his rent money on the machine next to you. . . but it may as well be. There wouldn’t be any slot machines if there weren’t a whole lot of those suckers. Contrast this with, say, buying unremarkable consumer products. Yes, it’s likely that someone, somewhere, used arguably unethical labor practices (or whatever) somewhere in the supply chain, no matter what product we’re talking about. But those unethical labor practices (or whatever) aren’t an inherent, unavoidable, foundational aspect of the very design of the product.

    • Well said. Hence the words “spendthrift” and (even more archaic) “scattergood,” which each in a single word describe one who wastes what had previously been gathered by prudence.

  7. I read an essay of similar substance a few months ago and as a consequence I rethought my participation in a NHL playoff pools (hockey being a big deal in Canada) because even though it’s ‘penny-ante’ gambling, why go there?

    I would defend pro sports as a legitimate entertainment in principle but I agree the $ involved is disproportionate and am open to arguments against.

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