Gambling (1)

Herman C. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

My first experience with big-time gambling came as a bit of a shock. I and three friends were on a trip through the West; our journey brought us to the vicinity of Las Vegas on the Fourth of July. Curiosity prompted us to visit the casinos in the city to see for ourselves what went on there. While much of what we witnessed has disappeared from my memory, various impressions linger to this day. I recall that our efforts to enter one casino were stymied by a huge “bouncer” who met us just inside the door and, after learning that we were below the legal age set by the state of Nevada for gamblers, hustled us out the same door with a speed which left our heads spinning. But an attempt to enter another casino met with success, and we witnessed what such gambling is like. The images which linger to this day include ear-bursting noise, armed guards patrolling a balcony with rifles and holstered pistols, the incessant and ceaseless sound of flying dice and whirling slot machines; but most of all, the hard and frozen faces of the gamblers themselves. It was then that I first realized that gambling can indeed be an addiction, as much as drunkenness.

Much has changed since that day. Then only Nevada had legalized gambling, although betting at race tracks was permitting in a few states; and then already the Roman Catholics had their weekly bingo games. (It was not so long after this that a sign by the Roman Catholic Church of the Holy Spirit irked me greatly with its blasphemy. The sign read, “Holy Spirit Bingo.”) Now, not only do other states provide legalized gambling in huge casinos, but lotteries have become almost a way of life. It was not so long ago that my wife and I stopped at an “oasis” on the Tri-state Highway around Chicago on the way to a preaching appointment in Randolph. We were puzzled by a line of people over a block long that never seemed to get any shorter waiting before a small counter in the oasis. Our curiosity led us to inquire of one man standing in the line what this was all about. He informed us that all these people were waiting to buy lottery tickets because the jackpot had reached several million dollars—the exact amount escapes me. Very few states today have retained laws against gambling.

These are only the most popular forms of gambling in our country, although enough money changes hands to boggle the mind. The statistics read something like this. Two-thirds of the people in the United States participate in some form of legal gambling. Over 80% approve of it. Bingo generates $4.5 billion every year and is played by over 22 million people. In Massachusetts alone $79 million changed hands in 1982. Yet untold billions of dollars pass from some people to others at the playing of every major sporting event in the country and many not so major sporting events. Practically every kind of sport has gambling as a sideline. People play card games for money, golf in which sums of money are bet on every hole, board games of one sort or another—one can hardly find any game which is not used as an excuse for gambling.

Another form of gambling, although there are those who would not call it that, is the growing prevalence of sweepstakes, raffles, and drawings. Hardly a week goes by in our home that we do not get some mail from some organization, very often from The Reader’s Digest, promising fantastic sums of money, new vacation homes, free trips to exotic places, beautiful automobiles; and, if you are only lucky enough to win third or fourth prize, VCRs, toasters, handbags, and ballpoint pens. All these do not usually cost the participant anything, although many companies urge, along with the sweepstakes, the purchase of a book or a product of lesser value; and one wonders whether those who refuse to make the purchase are really considered in the drawing, although the enclosed letters assure the reader that this really makes no difference. Raffles and drawings are a common way to make money for churches, hospitals, and various other charitable institutions.

So all-pervasive has gambling become, and so much is it a part of life that, when one disagrees with another over almost any point, the short sentence, “I’ll betcha . . .” is almost always inserted in the argument to give credence to one’s position. The result of it is that many church people, while condemning big-time gambling, are not at all averse to participating in or sponsoring drawings and raffles, see no wrong in winning big prizes through drawings and engaging in small side bets from time to time.

It can be argued, of course, that sweepstakes, raffles, and drawings are not, in the technical sense of the word, gambling. My dictionary defines gambling thus: “1. to play at any game of chance for stakes. 2. to stake or risk money, or anything of value, on the outcome of something involving chance. 3. to lose or squander by betting. 4. to make a wager.” For purposes of clarity, therefore, it is wise to distinguish between gambling and engaging in sweepstakes, raffles, or drawings. The latter involve no risk of one’s possessions or of anything of value. Whether such things are right is another question.

The church of Jesus Christ, from the beginning of her history, has always opposed gambling in whatever form it takes. While gambling was rife in the Roman Empire (the soldiers at the foot of the cross of Christ gambled over our Lord’s cloak in fulfillment of prophecy), the early church consistently condemned it and considered it a censurable sin. The churches of the Reformation took the same position, a position which is reflected in our Form for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper, in which “gamesters” are included among those who are guilty of sins which bar them from the table of the Lord.

The difficulty is that, because no specific and explicit injunctions against gambling can be found in Scripture, the arguments against it are in the form of deductions from Biblical principles. And sometimes the church has raised arguments which are not always very persuasive.

One argument often raised against gambling is the argument based on “chance.” To gamble is to take a chance; to take a chance is to trust in fate or luck to the exclusion of God’s providence; to trust in fate or luck is to break the first commandment because the first commandment forbids putting our trust in any creature other than the living God. This argument is not altogether persuasive because, in some sense of the word, life is full of “taking chances.” When one drives his automobile down the road, one “takes a chance” that he will have a collision, e.g. And, while some have carried this argument so far that any game of chance is condemned, it is hard to distinguish between the “chance” in a game of chess and the “chance” in a game of “Rock.”

Others have carried this argument a bit further. They have argued that, rather than trust in “chance,” the Christian ought always to recognize God’s providence in all his life, live in the consciousness of that providence of God, even when playing a game. But to confess the truth of providence in a game is to make a frivolous use of providence which involves one in a violation of the third commandment, which forbids taking the name of the Lord our God in vain. The point then is that one ought not to connect providence with games. But this line of argument would seem to prohibit the Christian from playing any kind of game, an argument which is not very persuasive, to say the least.

Yet another argument, one which appeared in a recent article on gambling in The Banner, in an issue devoted to that subject, argued that the wrong of gambling is to be found in the combination of risk and play. To engage in something risky without playing is not wrong; to engage in play in which there is no risk (or a minimal risk) is not wrong; but to put the two together, something which lies at the very heart of gambling, is a sin. While there may be an element of truth in this argument, it is not altogether convincing since it involves more than gambling. One who engages in auto racing for pleasure is not gambling (at least in the technical sense of that word), but is certainly endangering his own life. And the Heidelberg Catechism speaks of this as a violation of the commandment against murder.

Still others have argued that gambling is a violation of the principle of the underlying truth of the second commandment: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. To gamble is to take something from the neighbor. This is tantamount to doing harm to the neighbor. It is therefore contrary to the law of love. The argument seems to be a bit strained however, chiefly because, while it is wrong to take something from our neighbor against his will or without his knowing about it, in gambling he consents to give up what he has staked should he lose the bet.

But all of this does not mean that the principles which Scripture lays down as governing the life of the child of God do not condemn gambling.

There are, it seems to me, especially two principles of Scripture which apply directly to gambling. The one is the principle of the tenth commandment, the commandment which forbids covetousness; the other is the principle of Christian stewardship.

To take the latter first, the principle of Christian stewardship is an extremely important principle of the Word of God, but is a principle which is not very well understood in our day, nor very carefully observed. Scripture speaks repeatedly of this truth and pronounces severe judgments upon those who violate this sacred trust.

What is called stewardship in Scripture is an idea taken from the culture in which the church found itself both in the Old and New Testaments. Joseph was steward in the house of Potiphar. Jesus uses the idea of stewardship in his parable of the unfaithful steward. And references to this idea can be found in other passages of God’s Word.

A steward was almost always a slave, although he could also be a hired servant. Because of his unusual abilities and devoted work for his master, he was raised to a position of great authority in his master’s house. He was made responsible for all the business dealings of his master; he was superintendent of all the other servants; he was in charge of all the household expenses; he was, in fact, sometimes given responsibility for the education and training of his master’s children. In short, he often was responsible for everything which his master owned.

Now the principle of stewardship involved a few specific truths which Scripture applies to our relationship to God.

But we shall have to wait with a further discussion of this till our next issue.