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Issue and Interchange

The goal of this regular feature is to provide our readers with opposing arguments on topics pertinent to the Christian life. Due to the power of party spirit, personal credibility, credentials, etc., we have asked all the authors writing for this feature to publish their brief statments anonymously. By doing this, we hope to encourage the reader, in some small way, to focus on the arguments involved in each position rather than on personal factors.

The authors selected for the respective sides in the debate are outspoken supporters of their viewpoints.

Issue: Is Gambling Morally Permissible?

Advocate 1: Gambling Per Se Is Permissible Within Certain Biblical Limits

The Jewish rabbis of the middle ages forbade it. So did Confucius and Mohammed. And through the years, many well-intended Christians have done so as well. What have they all forbidden? Gambling. That's right. From chipping in a buck for the World Series pool at work to playing with the big spenders at the highfalutin casinos of Monte Carlo, we are told that gambling is sinful. "For followers of Jesus Christ," writes one Christian author, "gambling is an insidious form of worldliness."[1] Yet another author continues in the same vein by bringing down the gauntlet: "Gambling is wrong; the Bible is clear on that point.... Don't gamble -- ever!"[2]

Some stern warnings, to be sure. But are they accurate? Does Scripture really condemn gambling per se? Hardly. After examining some foundational principles, articulating some important limitations, and answering some common but fallacious objections, we will see that far from condemning gambling per se, Scripture actually permits it within carefully prescribed limitations. Hence, to those who say "Don't bet on it!" we simply respond by asking, "Wanna bet?"

Laying A Firm Foundation: Some Introductory Principles

Lord of All

Because Christ alone is Lord of all, He has given us directives in His Word which apply to all of life. To say that Christ is Lord of all is simply to say that no area of life is outside of His lordship, dominion, or control. We are to consecrate every area of our lives to God so that whether we eat or drink or whatever we do, we do all in His name and to His glory (1 Cor. 10:31; Col. 3:17).

Living to the glory of God, though, doesn't require us to enroll in a local monastery and spend the rest of our lives chanting in candle-lit rooms (as though Christ were not Lord of all vocations and we were not His royal priests on Wall Street -- 1 Pet. 2:9). Nor does it require us to denounce marriage or certain foods (as though Christ were not Lord of all things and the One through whom God made all things "good" -- Gen. 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31; 1 Tim. 4:4; Jn. 1:3). And it certainly doesn't require us to beat and flog our "flesh" and engage in other acts of self-abasement (as though Christ were not Lord of our bodies and we were not the temples wherein His Spirit dwells -- 1 Cor. 3:16).

What, then, does living a truly God-glorifying life require? It simply requires us to submit to Christ alone as Lord (Js. 4:12), and to order our lives according to His Word which is the final authority for all that we believe and do (Acts 17:11). If Christ alone, speaking through Scripture, is our final authority, then He alone can bind our consciences. Simply put, when it comes to living a godly life, we must speak when Scripture speaks and remain silent when Scripture is silent.

Strange as it may seem, however, many Christians have it all backwards: they are mute when Scripture speaks and they blurt out when Scripture is silent. That is, either (1) they ignore true godliness by rejecting the plain teachings of Scripture (only to end up wallowing around in licentiousness) or (2) they invent rules and restrictions for achieving "true" godliness by condemning what Scripture doesn't condemn or by adding to the plain teachings of Scripture (only to end up wading through legalism). As Christians, though, we are called to steer clear of both licentiousness and legalism.

Instead, we are called to exercise both liberty and responsibility. Paul put it well when he told the Galatians that though we have been "called to freedom" we are not to "turn our freedom into an opportunity for the flesh...." (Gal. 5:13).

Free at Last?

How do we tell the difference between what we are free to do and what is an opportunity for the flesh? Obviously, we must do what God has commanded (e.g. loving one another), refrain from doing what He has prohibited (e.g. committing adultery), and are free to enjoy what God permits (e.g. getting married). So much for the easy cases. What about the seemingly difficult cases like drinking, dancing, or even gambling? No one would contend that God commands us individually to drink, dance, or gamble. So, when it comes to activities like gambling, the payoff question is: Does God prohibit us from gambling or does He permit us to do so within certain prescribed limits?

Aside from the evils of licentiousness and legalism, there are two diametrically opposed ways to approach and answer this payoff question: what we shall refer to respectively as the Fundamentalist view and the Reformed view.

According to the Fundamentalist view, whatever is not permitted in Scripture, either explicitly or implicitly, is prohibited. In other words, we can't do anything unless Scripture says we can do it. On this view, the proponent of gambling bears the burden of proving that Scripture permits and does not forbid gambling. Until and unless he does so, the Fundamentalist view maintains that gambling is forbidden.

Over and against the Fundamentalist view, stands the Reformed view, which holds that whatever is not forbidden in Scripture, either explicitly or implicitly, is permitted. Put simply, we can do anything that Scripture doesn't prohibit. On this view, the opponent of gambling bears the burden of proving that Scripture prohibits gambling. Until and unless he does so, the Reformed view maintains that gambling is permitted.

Is there a way to resolve this supposed impasse between the Fundamentalist and the Reformed views? Fortunately, Scripture itself is very clear on this point; only the Reformed view finds warrant in Scripture. Consider, if you will, the following passages:

Listen to Me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside the man which going into him can defile him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man.... For from within, out of the heart of man, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these things proceed from within and defile the man (Mk. 7:14-15, 21-23).

I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in and of itself.... All things indeed are clean...(Rom. 14:14, 20).

All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything.... All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify.... For the earth is the Lord's and all it contains (1 Cor. 6:12, 10:23, 26; Ps. 24:1).

But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron, men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods, which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good and nothing is to be rejected, if it is received with gratitude; for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer (1 Tim. 4:1-5).

If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourselves to decrees, such as, "Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!" (which all refer to things destined to perish with the using)--in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence (Col. 2:20-23).

If we know and can be convinced that (1) Christ alone is Lord over the earth and all it contains, (2) God created all things good, (3) nothing is unclean in and of itself, (4) nothing can defile a man from without, (5) nothing is to be rejected if it received with gratitude and is sanctified by means of the Word of God and prayer, (6) man-made rules, while appearing outwardly religious, are of no value whatsoever against licentiousness, and (7) all things are lawful, then the Reformed view prevails. It is up to the opponent of gambling or any other activity to prove that Scripture forbids such behavior.

Given the truth of the Reformed view, it is helpful to see life as a playground. God has created a playground and has given His children liberty to play to their fill as long as they do so to His glory. Just as assuredly as God has created a playground and given us liberty therein, He has also built a fence around that playground and prohibits us sternly from wandering beyond that fence. But a playground wouldn't be a playground if it didn't have its own internal rules. Our playground is no exception. We must seek to understand those rules in light of our personal backgrounds (e.g. our motivations, capabilities, strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, etc.) and in light of our circumstances (e.g. the short and long term consequences of our actions). In other words, some of us may like the swings while others get dizzy on them and avoid them. This, of course, is just another way of saying that though something may be permissible in and of itself (e.g. drinking in moderation), it may not be good or desireable for everyone (e.g. a former alcoholic or someone who simply dislikes the taste) or under every circumstance (e.g. before driving).

My opponent and I believe that only the Reformed view safeguards both liberty and responsibility and simultaneously steers clear of licentiousness (which is based on a distorted view of liberty) and legalism (which is based on a distorted view of responsibility). Even though we agree as to the Reformed view, however, we disagree as to how it is to be applied to the case of gambling. I contend that gambling per se is within the playground subject only to the internal rules of the playground, whereas my opponent contends that gambling in and of itself is outside of the playground.

Drawing The Battle Lines: Some Important Limitations

Gambling is playing a so-called game of chance for money or other stakes; wagering money or other stakes on an allegedly uncertain outcome or contingency; betting, wagering, or speculating.[3] Gambling, then, involves (1) putting up money or other stakes (2) on an so-called game of chance, uncertainty, or contingency.

While we have claimed that gambling per se is within the playground (i.e. is generally permissible), we have also admitted that gambling, like any activity, is subject to certain playground rules (i.e. Biblically prescribed limits). What follows, then, is a brief list of attitudes and/or actions which Scripture forbids whether they be associated with gambling or any other activity.

1. We cannot involuntarily take or misappropriate property which rightfully belongs to God or others. Consequently, we cannot (a) rob God by gambling our tithe (Mal. 3:8); (b) steal money from family, friends, or associates to bet at the races (Ex. 20:15); or (c) fail to provide for those reasonably under our care (1 Tim. 5:8). In other words, we must be good stewards of what God has given to us and those around us.

2. We cannot allow ourselves to become mastered by or addicted to anything such that we neglect our duties toward God, our families, churches, employers, and neighbors (1 Cor. 6:12).

3. We cannot worship anyone or anything other than the one true God (e.g. we cannot worship lady luck, fortune, or happenstance) (Ex. 20:3, 34:14).

4. We cannot allow ourselves to be motivated by greed, covetousness, or discontent (Ex. 20:17; Prov. 11:28; 15:16; 23:4-5; Gal. 5:21; Eph. 5:3-5; Phil. 4:11-13; Col. 3:5; 1 Tim. 6:6-11, 17-19).

5. We cannot disobey lawful authorities if such authorities have forbidden us to gamble since we would not be forced to choose between obeying God or man (i.e. a law forbidding gambling would not forbid us to do what God commands or command us to do what God forbids) (Acts 5:29).

6. We cannot perpetrate crimes or acts of fraud and deceit on others (Lev. 19:13; Ps. 15:3; 24:4; 1 Cor. 6:8; 2 Cor. 7:2).

7. We cannot offend a weaker brother by forcing or cajoling him to gamble when he has scruples against gambling (Rom. 14:1-23; 1 Cor. 8:9-13).

Parrying The Blows: Some Common Objections

Having examined some foundational principles and articulated some important limitations, we are now in a position to answer some common objections to gambling which have been raised through the years. As we will see, however, each objection misunderstands the nature of gambling and the nature of the Biblical limitations discussed above, since each objection assumes that gambling necessarily involves a violation of one or more of the Biblical limitations discussed above. Put another way, each objection misconstrues the Biblical limitations on gambling as outright prohibitions of gambling per se.

1. What A Steal

In his magnanimous three-volume Systematic Theology, the great Reformed theologian, Charles Hodge, claims that gambling violates the eighth commandment because it necessarily involves taking property which belongs to others. Because "gambling falls under the same category where advantage is taken of the unwary or unskillful to deprive them of their property without compensation," it is sinful.[4] And Hodge isn't alone. The masterful southern theologian, Robert L. Dabney, concurs with Hodge by asserting that gambling plunders our neighbors' estate; accordingly, he includes gambling with vices such as robbery, theft, stealth, swindling, wastefulness, extortion, and embezzlement.[5] Thus, both Hodge and Dabney believe that gambling necessarily involves depriving others of their property.G.I. Williamson, whose tremendously insightful books on the Westminster Confession and Catechisms have tutored many in the Reformed faith, gives us a better understanding of the traditional Reformed position ("TRP"). After claiming that God ultimately owns all that exists, that God sovereignly determines what property is given to man, and that the right of private property is an ordinance of God (with which we heartily agree), he claims that there are only two legitimate ways for Christians to acquire property: by gift/inheritance and by labor.[6] He proceeds to define stealing as obtaining property unlawfully (by which he means property not acquired as a gift or as a result of labor), and then moves from this definition to his punchline by claiming that gambling "always involves the element of stealing because the motive is to get money without labor, and without it being given as a gift."[7 ] Admitting that great Reformed minds have classified gambling as stealing, we must nonetheless take the TRP to Scripture -- as did the noble-minded Bereans with the teachings of the apostles themselves -- to see whether these things are so (Acts 17:11). By so doing, we will see that the TRP is mistaken for four reasons.

(1) The TRP begs the question by assuming (a) that gambling necessarily involves either the acquisition of property (which, as a matter of fact, it usually doesn't!) or (b) that everyone gambles primarily in order to acquire property (which is a hasty generalization!).[8] Would gambling per se still be wrong if the gambler had no desire to acquire property and returned all property so acquired?

(2) Even if gambling necessarily involves the acquisition of or motivation to acquire property, the TRP reduces to a false dilemma since Scripture nowhere says that we can acquire property only by means of gifts or as a result of labor. This definition arbitrarily and conveniently excludes a third alternative: acquiring property by means of a voluntary exchange.[9]

(3) Since the TRP defines stealing as acquiring property other than by gifts or by labor (i.e. since the TRP omits voluntary exchange as a legitimate way to acquire property), the TRP trips when it classifies gambling as stealing. Contrary to the TRP, stealing should properly be defined as taking or misappropriating the property of others without their consent. To avoid begging the question, therefore, the advocate of the TRP needs to prove that gambling necessarily involves (a) taking or misappropriating the property of others, and (b) that such taking or misappropriation is involuntary (no paternalism please!).

(4) Even if the advocate of the TRP is adamant in clinging to his arbitrary view that the Christian can only acquire property by means of a gift or by bestowing labor, it is entirely possible to characterize property gained by gambling as constituting a gift or as resulting from labor. (a) The TRP assumes that property acquired by gambling does not constitute a gift. In the process, however, the TRP becomes impaled on the horns of a serious dilemma. The catalyst for generating this dilemma is the test case of "prizes". Would the TRP, if consistently applied, condemn all prizes? If the advocate of TRP says "no" then he must offer criteria for distinguishing other prizes (which he would allow) from property acquired by gambling (which he doesn't allow). If, on the other hand, he says "yes" then he must offer criteria for distinguishing prizes (which he wouldn't allow) from other gifts (which he does allow). (b) The TRP also assumes that gambling, in at least some cases, does not result from skill or labor (apparently because that skill or labor is staked on an apparent contingency beyond the control of the gambler).[10] But isn't the same thing true with other kinds of investments or business transactions? Would the TRP also condemn other such investments or transactions? If the advocate of TRP says "no" then he must offer criteria for distinguishing gambling from other kinds of investments and transactions. If, on the other hand, he says "yes" then he must distinguish what he means by "labor" from the obvious skill and labor investors and businessmen bestow.

2. The Gambling Bug

Many Christians condemn gambling because some people become addicted to or abuse it.[11] Four problems inhere in this objection. (1) By condemning legitimate use because of potential or actual abuse, this objection can easily be reduced to absurdity: should we also refuse to drink alcohol or take prescription drugs because there are many alcoholics or drug addicts who abuse alcohol or drugs?[12] If the potential for addiction or abuse is a reason to condemn an activity, then, in order to be consistent, we would have to jettison many otherwise legitimate and permissible activities. (2) Advocates of the "gambling bug" objection attribute the problem of some people to all people (usually by arguing that we all have a hidden potential for abuse). "Gambling bug" advocates then move from what "is" the case to (the addiction of some) to what "ought" to be the case (prohibition); that is, they commit the naturalistic fallacy by moving from the descriptive to the normative without providing adequate Biblical warrant. (3) The "gambling bug" objection, as articulated by some opponents of gambling, assumes the truth of the medical model (i.e. that addiction is an illness or a disease) which undermines Biblical responsibility. (4) And aside from the three criticisms offered above, this objection is especially pernicious because its advocates pretend to know better than God what is best for His people!

3. Chances Are

Dabney writes that gambling is a sin, because, among other things, gamblers insincerely and profanely appeal to chance as a cause when "the real cause is Divine Providence."[13] Indeed, if gamblers worship, adore, or otherwise believe in "lady luck", then gambling is sinful for them. But this objection doesn't militate against gambling per se for three reasons. (1) This objection begs the question that gambling necessarily involves idolatrous appeals to chance. Isn't it possible for a Christian to realize that the "lot is cast in the lap, but its very decision is from the Lord" (Prov. 16:33)? Christians can speculate on an alleged contingency, knowing full well that even seemingly chance-random events happen only by divine providence (I Kg. 22:34). (2) As with the "gambling bug" objection above, this objection moves from rightfully condemning abuse to fallaciously condemning legitimate use. (3) If consistently applied, this objection would condemn otherwise legitimate investments or transactions[14] as well as insurance policies,[15] since, from a human point of view, investments, transactions, and insurance policies typically involve apparent contingencies. After all, the "secret things belong to the Lord our God..." (Deut. 29:29).

4. The Greed Factor

Most Christians who oppose gambling, argue that gambling is wrong because it springs from and fosters greed, covetousness, and discontent.[16] This objection is wrong for three reasons. (1) This objection begs the question by assuming that those who gamble are doing so based on greed, covetousness, and discontent. Just because gambling may be financially profitable doesn't mean that gambling necessarily entails greed, covetousness, and discontent. (2) Taken to its logical conclusion, this objection would condemn all profit-seeking activity (including our occupations) since our salaries could foster greed as well. How absurd! The sinful attitude of greed doesn't necessarily inveigh against an activity just because that activity produces a profit. Scripture nowhere tells us that financial profit in and of itself is to be eschewed since it is the love of money and not money itself that is the root of all evil (1 Tim. 6:10). (3) This objection, like the "gambling bug" objection, fallaciously moves from rightfully condemning abuse to condemning legitimate use without providing adequate Biblical warrant.

5. The Long Arm of the Law

Some argue that Christians shouldn't gamble because gambling is illegal in many jurisdictions. Indeed, where gambling is illegal, Christians must obey lawful authorities. But this argument doesn't tell against gambling per se for two reasons. (1) Just because something is illegal doesn't make it immoral per se since not all crimes are sins. A law criminalizing gambling doesn't make gambling evil in and of itself. Were the Christian to gamble in a jurisdiction that outlaws gambling, the sin would not be gambling; the sin would be violating the law and lawful authorities without abiding by the Biblical criteria for such disobedience. (2) This objection doesn't prove that gambling is morally wrong for the Christian if his particular jurisdiction permits its citizens to gamble which is the case in many jurisdictions.

6. Crimes and Misdemeanors

Dabney argues that the "practical proof of the immorality of gaming is, that all habitual gamblers proceed from `fair gaming' sooner or later, to tricks which even their own code condemns as frauds."[17] Still others argue against gambling by contending that gambling breeds crimes such as drug trafficking, prostitution, and theft. This objection falls prey to several blunders. (1) This objection is based on a slippery slope which is unproven. Until and unless those who voice this objection can prove (a) that there is a slope and (b) that it is slippery, they have not met the burden of proof that rests on their shoulders. (2) Even assuming that the slippery slope exists, this objection moves fallaciously from rightfully condemning abuse to condemning legitimate use.[18] It simply isn't true that all gamblers perpetrate frauds or sell drugs or prostitute themselves. (3) Undesirable social consequences may be prevalent in and around gambling establishments, but such crimes do not necessarily constitute an argument against the morality of gambling any more than crimes committed in and around bars would be an argument against drinking,[19] or any more than crimes committed in and around movie theaters would be an argument against the morality of attending a movie!

7. Oh Brother!

Some, as a last ditch effort, argue against gambling by contending that we shouldn't gamble because we may cause a weaker brother or sister to stumble. In order to properly apply the weaker brother passages to the case of gambling, however, we must understand (1) that the weaker brother is the one with the scruples and (2) that causing him to stumble means forcing or cajoling him to do that which he believes is wrong.[20] Thus, this objection doesn't prove that gambling itself is wrong; it only proves that we shouldn't force or cajole someone who thinks that gambling is wrong to gamble. Why? Because doing something you think is wrong is sinful, even if it is actually permissible (since the weaker brother would be doing it with the wrong motivation). God not only looks at our actions; He also examines our hearts (Prov. 21:2).

Some Concluding Remarks

The Reformed view of Christian liberty holds that we are permitted to do anything that God doesn't forbid. While many Christians try to argue against gambling per se by contending that it is forbidden, their arguments simply don't stand up to scrutiny. Within Biblically prescribed limits, gambling per se is permissible. You can bet on it!


[1] Tom Watson Jr., Don't Bet on It, (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1987), p. 28.

[2] David Hocking, The Moral Catastrophe, (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1990), p. 245.

[3] Philip Babcock Gove, ed., Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language (Unabridged), (Springfield, MA: G. & C. Merriam Company, 1976), p. 932.

[4] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Col, reprinted 182), vol. III, p. 437.

[5] Robert L. Dabney, Systematic Theology, (Carlistle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trst, 1985 [1878]), p. 415; see also, Robert L. Dabney, The Practical Philosphy, (Harrisburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1984 [1897]), p. 485.

[6] G.I. Williamson, The Shorter Catechism, (Phillipsburg, PA: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co., 1970), vol. w, p. 68.

[7] Ibid.

[8] For a detailed refutation of this objection, see my refutation of "The Greed Factor" objection below.

[9] A voluntary exchange may include an exchange of money, goods, labor/services, entertainment, etc. in any combination.

[10] One logician claims that a "thoroughly practiced gambler" with more than usual skill "must be regarded as following a pression". John Venn, The Logic of Chance, New York, NY: Chelsea Publishing Co., 1962 [1888]), p. 377.

[11] See, e.g., Watson, Don't Bet on It, pp. 18-19.

[12] Hocking actually condemns alcohol because of its addictive potential. He may be consistent, but he is consistently wrong. While Scripture condemns abuse of alcohol (drunkenness), it does not condemn legitimate use of alcohol. As with gambling, we are at liberty to drink withing certain perscribed limitations.

[13] Dabney, The Practical Philosphy, p. 485.

[14] Venn has written that while there are some differences between gamblers and investors/businessmen, there is an important respect in which they are alike: "insofar as chance and risk [are invloved in investments and business ventures, inventors and businessmen] may be fairly so termed [as gamblers], and in many branches of business this must necessarily be the case to a very considerable extent." The Logic of Chance, p. 386.

[15] Venn writes that insurance "is simply equivalent to a mutual contract amongst those who dread the consequences of the uncertainty of their life or employment, that they will employ the aggregate regularity to neutralize as far as possible the individual irregularity." The Logic of Chance, p. 373. Thus, to condemn gambling because it involves apparent contingencies is to condemn insurance policies as well.

[16] See, e.g. Hocking, The Moral Catastrophe, pp. 235-246.

[17] Dabney, The Practical Philosophy, p. 485.

[18] Note how Dabney argues from habitual gambling to gambling itself -- a rhetorically effective, but nonetheless fallacious category shift.

[19] During the so-called temperance movement, many teetotalers argued against drinking in this way. Their descendants are still around today; see, e.g. Hocking, The Moral Catastrophe, p. 201.

[20] Many wrongly think that causing a weaker brother to stumble means doing anything that offends him. Were this the case, we probably couldn't do anything since some brother out there would be offended.

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