Wasteful Gaming, Providence, And Being Truly Counter-Cultural

In 2024 when we see the participle gaming, we are likely to think of computers and headsets, but for centuries the word signified gambling. It still does. Several state governments in the USA have “gaming commissions” or the like. One of the several sins listed in Westminster Larger Catechism (1647) 142 under the prohibitions implied by the eighth commandment (“You shall not steal” Exod 20:15) is “wasteful gaming.” When the divines spoke thus, they were reflecting a long-time concern. In his 1527–1528 lecture on 1 Timothy 3:3, Martin Luther (1483–1546) wrote, “‘Greedy of filthy gain.’ What sort of gain is filthy? That which comes from filthy profiteering like gambling and usury, which demean the bishop. He ought to have the necessities of life and keep his accounts honestly and without blame.”1 As early as 1523, Huldrych Zwingli (1484–1531) opposed “games,” which typically referred to gambling.2 The 1552 Rhaetian Confession (ch. 32) warned that “dancing and gaming” tends to make men effeminate and leads to licentiousness.3 The 1552 Emden Confession mentioned gambling as one way Christians should not desecrate the Sabbath.4 The 1562 Hungarian Confession devoted an entire chapter to “Games, Dancing, and Theatrical Entertainments.”5 In 1583 the Synod of Wlodislaw complained about “grave scandals and serious vices [such as] drunkenness, reveling, extravagances, games of dice and board games, avarice, usury, oppression of one’s subjects.”6

This way of thinking did not disappear with the passing of the seventeenth century. A 1964 preparatory form (II) used in the Christian Reformed Church said:

However, the Lord admonishes those who do not believe or have not repented to abstain from the holy supper so as not to eat and drink judgment on themselves. Therefore we also charge those who willfully continue in their sins to keep themselves from the table of the Lord (such as all who trust in any form of superstition; all who honor images or pray to saints; all who despise God’s Word or the holy sacraments; all who take God’s name in vain; all who violate the sanctity of the Lord’s Day; all who are disobedient to those in authority over them; all drunkards, gamblers, murderers, thieves, adulterers, liars, and unchaste persons). To all such we say in the name of the Lord that as long as they remain unrepentant and unbelieving, they have no part in the kingdom of God.7

This was Synod’s interpretation of passages such as 1 Corinthians 6:9–10: “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers (ἅρπαγες) will inherit the kingdom of God.”8 As late as 1992, the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church adopted the following position: “Pastors and church councils are urged to expose all destructive influences on people’s lives that seek to trivialize or render irrelevant the providence of God. They must also caution against the impact of materialism, take decisive action to combat the evil of gambling, and minister compassionately to persons addicted to or victimized by lotteries.”9 This is the traditional Reformed view of gambling.10 We see this in Wilhelmus à Brakel’s A Christian’s Reasonable Service: “It is thus also evident that the abuse of the lot in games, entertainment, and gambling is a dreadful abuse of the providence of God.”11

I was stimulated to refresh my memory on the traditional Christian and Reformed approach to gambling when I stumbled across an article in Christianity Today reflecting on the changes in attitude toward gambling (in view of the Super Bowl). Aaron Earls of Lifeway reports, “US Protestant pastors remain opposed to sports gambling, but they’re not doing much about it.”12 This is a pressure point where, I suspect, pastors have decided that, to rearrange the old Tareyton Cigarette commercial, they would rather switch than fight. Gambling is legal virtually everywhere. Sports talk radio is awash with point spreads and even entire programs devoted to discussing gambling. Today, the fellow who does not gamble on the game is considered the odd man out.

So it should be for Christians. We are meant to be counter-cultural. As mother used to say, “Just because everyone else is doing it does not mean that you should do it too.” She was absolutely right.

Brakel and the Synod of the CRC are right. Gambling is toying with providence. The Westminster Divines were right to call it wasteful. Statistically, in the ordinary providence of God, it is beyond improbable that you will win the lottery.13 It is more likely that one will be struck by lightning, die by hornet or bee sting, or die in a cataclysmic storm. It is also foolish. All those states who sold the lottery to voters on the promise that it would pay for public education continue to raise property taxes to pay for public schools. There are more and bigger hotels in Las Vegas today than ever before because Americans love to go to Vegas and give their money to the house. “In 2022, the most-recently available data, commercial casino gaming revenue amounted to a record-breaking $60.46 billion, a 14% increase from 2021 and the second record-breaking year in a row.”14

What might start off as fun can become life dominating. Gambling addiction is skyrocketing. Edith Langford writes about just one demographic:

I have been a psychotherapist for 40 years and I still remember the first time, back in 1984, that I led an in-patient addiction therapy group. Joe, a retired marketing executive in his 60s and a compulsive gambler, abruptly exited the room and disappeared into the dark snowy Long Island evening in his pajamas and slippers.

Devastated, I thought I had done something wrong. “No,” my clinical supervisor explained, “it’s just post time at the Belmont racetrack.”

Flash-forward four decades and such cases of elder compulsive gambling, once rare, now dominate my caseload. The US is facing a catastrophe, with seniors at its heart. Each week I see out-of-control gamblers, including 80-year-olds, in my specialized addiction therapy practice.15

I was alerted to the problem by listening to Nebraska football games. They are sponsored by the Nebraska State Lottery. At the end of every commercial is a warning that gambling addicts should get help. When the state authorities extolled the virtues of gambling to the hard-working people, did they also warn them about state-sponsored addiction?

Finally, gaming undermines the Christian doctrine of vocation. We are to fulfill our divine calling in this life, to glorify God, to provide for our families, to support the diaconal ministry of the church, and to serve our neighbors. How does gambling do any of these? Paul writes, “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (Eph 4:28). We might just as well substitute in gambler: “Let the gambler gamble no more.” Some of those pigeons making the casinos fat and happy are professing Christians, whose ministers and churches struggle to keep away the wolf of poverty. One wonders if those Christians who feed the Vegas monster are also giving alms to help the suffering in their own congregations?


  1. Martin Luther, Luthers Works, Vol. 28: 1 Corinthians 7, 1 Corinthians 15, Lectures on 1 Timothy, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 28 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 287. Italics added for emphasis.
  2. “. . . games, eating, clothing, swearing, fighting, quarreling and avarice.” James T. Dennison Jr., Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation: 1523–1693, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2008–2014), 31. The Oxford English Dictionary gives this definition of “game,” in this sense: “To take part in an indoor game, of a kind on which stakes or wagers may be placed; esp. to play games of chance for such stakes or wagers; to gamble. Now somewhat archaic.” The first use in English dates to 1532. Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “Game.”
  3. “. . . dancing and games which make men effeminate and for the licentiousness of intemperance.” Dennison Jr., ed. Reformed Confessions, 1.683.
  4. “. . . and that the common man would refrain from the desecration of the Sabbath (that is, from drunkenness, games, walking, shopping, laboring, and other servile activities), so that the Sabbath, according to God’s command, may be hallowed in your parts.” Reformed Confessions, 1.55.
  5. “We prohibit that idolatrous play and dancing that springs from intoxication and drunkenness, when days dedicated to God, to listening to sermons and public divine worship, are spent in games and dancing; and when duty to God is omitted because of enticement, games, and dancing, as the decrees and councils teach. As is written in Exodus 32:6, “The people sat down and rose up to play.” Reformed Confessions, 1.544.
  6. Reformed Confessions, 1.613.
  7. Christian Reformed Church, “Form for the Celebration of the Lord’s Supper II,” 1964 , emphasis added.
  8. It seems as though Synod saw gambling as subset of rapaciousness.
  9. Christian Reformed Church, “Gambling.”
  10. In Institutes 4.12.22, Calvin lamented the decline of discipline of ministers in the Roman communion: “There follows the second part of discipline, which applies particularly to the clergy. It is contained in the canons that the ancient bishops imposed upon themselves and their order. Such are these: no cleric should devote himself to hunting, gambling, or reveling. No cleric should practice usury or commerce; no cleric should be present at wanton dances—and there are others of this sort. Penalties were also added to sanction the authority of the canons so that none might violate them with impunity.” John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011) 4.12.22.
  11. Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christians Reasonable Service, ed. Joel R. Beeke, trans. Bartel Elshout, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 1994), 124.
  12. Aaron Earls, “Super Bowl Gambling Grows, But Pastors Are on the Sidelines,” Christianity Today, February 8, 2024.
  13. Investopedia says it is 1 in 292 million. “The Lottery: Is It Ever Worth Playing?Investopedia, updated October 9, 2023.
  14. Chris Neiger, “Casino Stats: Why Gamblers Rarely Win,” Investopedia, updated February 5, 2024.
  15. Edith Langford, “As Gambling Addiction Rates Rise, Keep an Eye On Grandma this Super Bowl,” The Guardian, February 9, 2024.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. Wait, wait, WAIT! This one’s really rich; it’s an Anglican tale. This local church regularly schedules luncheons for women volunteers. Just a few years back, we were told that the venue would be just over the state line at the in-house eatery at…Harrah’s Casino.

    I wasted no time emailing both the priest and his event-organizer wife, lovingly giving Biblical reasons why this was a poor idea. I observed that there was absolutely zero value in gambling, regardless of one’s “lucky” ROIs at slot machines; blackjack tables; etc. I wrote that the church group’s presence would be an endorsement of gambling, etc.

    The response? Cyber crickets. And on went the luncheon, with many of us absent. And from that point on, the priest and his wife were very cool with me.

  2. Gambling is also a form of idolatry.
    “But you who forsake the LORD,
    who forget my holy mountain,
    who set a table for Fortune
    and fill cups of mixed wine for Destiny,
    I will destine you to the sword,
    and all of you shall bow down to the slaughter,
    because, when I called, you did not answer;
    when I spoke, you did not listen,
    but you did what was evil in my eyes
    and chose what I did not delight in.”
    — Isaiah 65:11-12 (ESV)

  3. Scott,

    Well done and timely. Frank Gaebelein, former headmaster at Stony Brook, added an additional reason: gambling is contrary to the law of charity, because when gambling, one can only win at another’s loss, which is contrary to “Do unto others…”

    T. David

  4. I lived on the Mississippi Gulf Coast when gambling came in the form of off-shore casinos (1990s). The damage was soon evident as I became personally acquainted with the case of a physician who committed suicide after his gambling losses destroyed his finances and family. One of our family friends destroyed their finances and even that could not extinguish the need to “go back and recover their losses” at the table. Our church was not unaffected as an elder left the church when he refused to stop representing the big gaming companies in their local business law needs. Another memory was the sight of tourist busses, filled with elderly women from around the state, who came to gamble away their meager incomes.

  5. How odd must I be, then. Not only did I not bet on the Super Duper Bowl, I did not watch it. And if you offered me money to name the contesting teams, I’d owe you. Staged competitions by overpaid men, funded by beer and big pharma, are of no interest to this fellow. How do they contribute to a Christian life? They do not.

  6. Thanks Dr Clark,
    I would love to hear your thoughts on the use of combining the sale of lottery tickets with foodstuffs. For example, you might buy a coffee tin with a code on the inside that allows you to enter for a $2000 cash prize. I’ve no problem with buying the tin for the coffee, but should you be entering the draw? Seems to me that some don’t count it lottery, but I can’t see a principle distinction.

  7. Very true- I’m not sure if you’ve seen images from the Vegas casinos of our elderly at slot machines, but its a terrifying thing: they stare with soulless eyes and slack jaws, mindlessly burning their funds. Its the same look like drug addicts have once they have shot up, and I’m very glad you’re addressing it. Thank you!


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