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Gambling and Legalism

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I recently posted a review of Dave Swavely’s recent book Who Are You To Judge?, a book which discusses judging and legalism. I recommend that you read the review before you continue with this article. I would like to discuss a particular application of Swavely’s teaching. At one point he discusses gambling and provides the following scenario:

Imagine a man named Bill, who has gambled two times in his life, while on vacation in Atlantic City and Reno. In both cases he did it merely to have fun, and maybe to win enough to pay for his hotel room that night. He took $20 with him to the casino, which is about what he might pay for other vacation fun, like video games or movies. He planned to leave when the $20 was gone, or when his set time limit was up, whichever came first. Both times he quit when his time limit was up, one time leaving with about the same amount of money he started with, and the second time with about $120. In the first case he was thanking God that he had a new experience that was enjoyable, and in the second case he was thanking God that his hotel room was paid for (see Romans 14:6 for why thanking God is important in situations like this).

Following this scenario, Swavely makes the following affirmations:

  • Gambling can be addictive and can ruin someone’s life.
  • It is wrong to lust for money, or even to gamble with money that would otherwise be giving to the Lord.
  • Gambling to earn money to pay bills or debts is an unscriptural approach to finances.
  • He would vote to keep gambling illegal in his state because of the bad effects it has on culture.

Yet even with these affirmations he cannot say that it was necessarily wrong for Bill to enjoy the games he played for a couple of hours. He also feels that he should not judge others who enjoy this type of restrained gambling. Hence a blanket statement that “gambling is wrong” is legalistic. The biblical basis for his argument is that the Bible does not mention gambling even though it clearly existed in the Greco-Roman world. None of the verses people cite against gambling are actually discussing gambling itself, but rather draw inferences about the practice. He believes, then, that a discussion of gambling must boil down to the motives of the participant. “I believe that wanting to get rich is a sin, because the Bible says so, and therefore anyone who gambles with the goal and desire of getting rich is sinning. The sin is not the act of gambling, however, but the attitude of the heart. And it is simply not correct to assume that everyone who gambles does so out of a desire to get rich.”

Swavely points out, correctly I believe, the absurdity of taking arguments against gambling too far. There are some who feel that card-playing of any type is sinful because cards lead to gambling (in which case my grandmother committed a grave sin when she taught me how to play “Go fish!”). This is the same type of person who may argue that dancing ought to be forbidden solely on the basis that dancing leads to lust and then to sexual sin (or, as the joke goes against Southern Baptists, sex ought to be forbidden because it leads to dancing). All humans, and not just Christians, tend to build “fences” around certain activities that they deem sinful in order to keep people from even approaching a particular sin. We see clear examples of this in Scripture where the Pharisees created ridiculous rules in order to protect themselves from violating any of the ten commandments. The great irony, of course, is that the rules they created were themselves violations of the very heart of the commandments. We can be guilty of the same sin.

Here are some of the things the Bible says about money that may be applicable to gambling:

  • All I have belongs to God (“The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1).
  • The normal means of gaining money is through work (“Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands” – Ephesians 4:28).
  • It is better to earn money than to gain it quickly (“Wealth gained hastily will dwindle, but whoever gathers little by little will increase it” – Proverbs 13:11).
  • Covetousness and greed are wrong (“You shall not covet…” – Exodus 20:17).

Swavely would teach that a Christian can abide by these principles and still participate in gambling. He may be right. But one area that Swavely does not deal with, that I feel is important, is that gambling is always done at the expense of someone else. Casinos make vast amounts of money. Of course any business tries to make money, but casinos do so without delivering much in the way of a product or service and they deliberately prey upon people and their finances. Casinos exist to enrich a few at the expense of many and if they were not succeeding admirably, they would not continue to exist! While Bill may be a responsible gambler, the money he “earns” from his two hours of fun may just have come from a person who played the slots with his last $20 in an attempt to earn enough to buy food for his family, something Swavely says the Bible forbids. It may have come from a compulsive gambler who is ruining his life and his relationships with his family. In other words, gambling does not happen in a void. Most Christians would not accept money from the lottery, even if they found a ticket rather than purchased it, because the money is considered tainted. I believe we might have to say the same is true of money dispensed from a casino.

An article published by a Presbyterian denomination states there are three reasons that people gamble: dissatisfaction, depression and despair. While these may all be valid some of the time, there are some people who gamble just for fun. They are not dissatisfied with their finances, and are not depressed or filled with despair. While some people may enjoy a game of Monopoly or Sorry, others may enjoy playing Poker or Blackjack. Thus a person may desire to gamble from pure motives. In such a case I am not convinced that gambling is wrong. It is more difficult to say that it would be wrong for Bill and some friends to gather in his basement to play poker together, each bringing $20. Is this a worse way of spending money than, for example, going to a movie or even going out for dinner at a steak house? Are they violating any scriptural principles? If this is not an unscriptural way of spending time and if these men are not violating any biblical principles, we have no right to judge them, do we?

What do you think?


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