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Wanna Bet? A Christian View On Gambling

On Tuesday, Melbourne Cup Day, you’ll probably be asked to go into a ‘sweep’. If you feel, as most Christians do, that gambling is wrong in principle, what will you do? Is all gambling proscribed for a Christian? Should a church or Christian organization accept a gift won by gambling?

# A frail old woman shuffles up to the window of a TAB office in Pitt Street, Sydney. She slowly spreads several small denomination coins to make up the required one dollar. ‘Give this one a prayer,’ she whispers with a worn smile as the operator punches her ticket. She’s about 60, white-haired and well-spoken, but she sleeps on railway stations and carries her world in a string-bag. ‘We get a lot of bettors like that old woman,’ says operator Pam White… ‘pensioners, old people down on their luck, some of them derelicts…’

# Tony stayed with our family for a while. He was a compulsive gambler, and usually put his whole week’s earnings through 20 cent poker machines in one night. We had to intercept him after he got his pay to extract his rent…

# Brigid (a Catholic) took the last ticket in an office Melbourne Cup ‘sweep’. The horse – ‘Saintly’ (!) -won. She collected $2000, and knew the Lord had provided for us to come and minister in her town, so she sent the money to John Mark Ministries…

# A few years ago Jan and I went to a kitchen exhibition to get ideas for a new kitchen. There’s was a ‘competition’ at one stall: guess the correct price-tag of the kitchen on display and you could win one free! Jan and I scribbled down an amount, tossed it into the bin, and a week later Jan got a phone call to say she’d won! Guessed it exactly to the dollar. The prize became our kitchen for several years in the manse at Blackburn Baptist Church, and when we left the Church-people enjoyed it for a decade and a half more…

# Into today’s paper there’s an ad which says: ‘Win a Game with Norman. Imagine playing a game of golf with the Shark. That’s the prize one lucky Sunday Heral Sun reader will win – playing a round with Greg Norman in next month’s Holden Australian Open Pro-Am. Simply fill in the coupon and you could be Norman’s partner for the round on December 1.

# A neighbourhood kid comes to your door and says she’s selling raffle tickets for her school library. What do you do?

# An impoverished couple living in a trailer park won the lottery. They attended a fundamentalist church that did not believe in lotteries. The pastor asked the couple if they intended keeping the money. They said ‘Yes’ upon which the couple were invited not to attend that church ever again…


# In 1992, 70% of people in Melbourne aged over 55 gambled. By 1997 the figure had risen to 86%

# A white paper from the federal government’s Inquiry into Gambling indicated that ‘relaxed’ restrictions on gambling has increased the losses to more than $10,000 million each year for punters in an $80,000 million a year industry)

# There Are 20 million compulsive gamblers in the U.S.


On the first Tuesday in November the whole Australian nation stops for the Melbourne Cup horse race. (I don’t know any comparable, regular event in any other country that does this on such a scale). Let’s say you’re a Christian, and you believe gambling is ‘wrong’. You’re invited to join a Melbourne Cup ‘sweep’: everyone else is in it but you feel a little uneasy, and don’t really know why. Your work-mates ask the inevitable question ‘But why not?’ What do you say?

By the way, one writer says Australia is the only country in the world to enshrine a game of chance – two-up – as part of its national character-building folklore. And we’re the only people on earth to respond to an intellectual argument with the language of risk; ‘Wanna bet?’

What is Gambling?

Gambling is the transference of money or property on the basis of chance. ‘To gamble is to take a calculated risk for monetary or personal gain’ (Dictionary of Pastoral Care and Counseling). The dictionary gives the following definition of “gamble”: 1. play any game of chance for stakes, 2. stake or risk anything of value on the result of something involving chance, 3. lose or squander by betting,6. make a wager, 5. any matter or thing involving risk or uncertainty.

So there are two factors we will have to consider in our evaluation of gambling: 1) the element of risk or chance involved, 2) the motivation or purpose which is involved.

The problem begins right there: There are two moral ways to gain property: by giving money or something else in exchange for it, or by receiving it as a gift. Gambling is neither. Because you gain at others’ expense it’s really a form of ‘robbery by mutual consent’.


Gambling has existed in every society. The ancient Siamese bet on which mussels (shell-fish) would open up ahead of others. Mercury ‘played at tables’ to win a share of the moon’s light in Roman mythology, and archeologists have found many dice (some of them loaded!) in the ruins of Pompeii.

And gambling – like stealing – seems to have been condemned universally too. The ancient Greeks considered it detrimental to the order of the State; the ancient Egyptians thought it made men effeminate.

Some of the ‘greats’ have been hooked: Dostoevsky’s incentive for writing was often to get money for gambling.

Modern Reactions

Public opinion about gambling moves in waves. In the 1920s, for example, most Americans and their governing bodies were adamantly opposed to it in any form. By the 1970s it had become that nation’s biggest ‘industry’. State-run lotteries exist in most countries. The Sydney Opera House was built from the proceeds of a State-run lottery. George Orwell’s ‘1984’ describes the superstate Oceania in which betting for ‘some millions of proles was the principal if not the only reason for remaining alive’.


In a special report on Gambling in the Australian weekly The Bulletin (July 20, 1996), the headline read: ‘Australia is a giant gambling den and the biggest junkies in the game are our state governments..’ It continued: ‘Some politicians, like NSW premier Bob Carr, think government gambling dependency distasteful, if not immoral, but know they are powerless to go cold turkey. In contrast, Victoria’s Jeff Kennett has wholeheartedly embraced gambling revenue as the most painless way to dig the state out of the Cain/Kirner economic black hole. Smaller states have been forced to follow suit.’

Other items from that article:

# Only 10% of people see gambling as a useful way to raise taxes

# Only 20% of Australians did not gamble in the previous 12 months; 1.3 million Australians admitted that gambling had caused troubles for their families or friends.

# In 1995 Australians lost 8.26 billion worth of bets – up from $7 billion the previous year. On average each Australian over 18 lost $617 on the horses, the dogs, the pokies, Lotto, lotteries, Keno, casinos, Bingo. The total gambling turnover in 1995 was $61.1 billion. Australian gamblers lost $3.8 billion on poker machines, $1.6 billion on racing, $1.2 billion in casinos, $855 million on Lotto and Tattslotto, $233 million on instant lotteries, $277 million on Bingo and minor gaming…

# 80% of Melbourne’s temporary Crown Casino patrons are locals, 15% come from interstate, and 5% from overseas.

The major forms of gambling: casinos, bingo, office pools, lotteries, dog and horse racing, and , in Latin American countries and the U.S. jai alai (a game like handball).

There is an increasing trend these days for products to be promoted through the use of prize draws and competitions. Such promotions are regarded as a significant enticement to, and at the same time a harmless form of amusement for the consumer. But a recent study (by Susanna FitzGerald and Dr. Sue Fisher) has thrown grave doubts over the way many of these schemes are set up. There is also a growing concern about the social impact of gambling style promotions and, in particular, the effects they can have on young people and other vulnerable groups.

Problem/Compulsive Gambling

Compulsive gambling is now listed as a psychiatric disorder of impulse control, characterized by an inability to resist gambling combined with compromise of family, personal and/or vocational pursuits. In severe cases there is involvement in criminal activity, particularly stealing, out of desperation to get more funds. It’s an acquired behavior; the result of social/environmental factors rather than an innate biological predisposition. ‘Gambling may produce positive emotional arousal by eliciting cognitive states such as pride, courage, or release from reality. Therefore, it may be that compulsive gamblers experience an unpleasant tension if they refrain from gambling… Gambling may also be conceptualized as adult play. According to Freud, play has four functions: wish fulfilment, conflict reduction, temporary leave of absence from reality, and the shift from a passive to an active state… Gambling may also involve a form of self-punishment… Others suggest gamblers may be sensation-seekers who take monetary and perhaps social risks in gambling that provide needed stimulation. And gambling has been conceptualized as an addiction’ (Dictionary of Pastoral Care and Counseling).

Treatment: Psychiatrists may use self-control techniques, aversion therapy or ‘imaginable desensitization’. Gamblers Anonymous is a self-help group similar to Alcoholics Anonymous, involving public admission of the problem and group support from members. Most compulsive gamblers don’t seek assistance until the situation has become extreme.

What of the future? Gambling on the Internet is growing exponentially; the introduction of ‘interactive television’ along with the spread of Pay TV will bring uninterrupted 24-hour-a-day home gambling in the next few years. Households will have their own automatic teller

Do You Have A Gambling Problem? 20 Questions

Gambler’s Anonymous has twenty questions that it asks new members. Compulsive gamblers usually answer “yes” to at least seven of the twenty questions.

1. Do you lose time from work due to gambling? 2. Does gambling make your home life unhappy? 3. Does gambling affect your reputation? 4. Do you ever feel remorse after gambling? 5. Do you ever gamble to get money with which to pay debts or to otherwise solve financial difficulties? 6. Does gambling cause a decrease in your ambition or efficiency? 7. After losing, do you feel you must return as soon as possible to win back your losses? 8. After a win, do you have a strong urge to return and win more? 9. Do you often gamble until your last dollar is gone? 10. Do you ever borrow to finance your gambling? 11. Do you ever sell anything to finance gambling? 12. Are you reluctant to use “gambling money” for normal expenditure? 13. Does gambling make you careless about the welfare of your family? 14. Do you ever gamble longer than you planned? 15. Do you ever gamble to escape worry or trouble? 16. Do you ever commit, or consider committing, an illegal act to finance your gambling? 17. Does gambling cause you to have difficulty sleeping? 18. Do arguments, disappointments, or frustrations create within you an urge to gamble? 19. Do you have an urge to celebrate good fortune by a few hours of gambling? 20. Do you ever consider self-destruction as a result of your gambling?


1. We admitted we were powerless over gambling – that our lives had become unmanageable. 2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to a normal way of thinking and living. 3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of this Power of our own understanding. 4. Made a searching and fearless moral and financial inventory of ourselves. 5. Admitted to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. 6. Were entirely ready to have these defects of character removed. 7. Humbly asked God (of our understanding) to remove any shortcomings. 8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all. 9. Make direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others. 10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it. 11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out. 12. Having made an effort to practice these principles in all our affairs, we tried to carry this message to other compulsive gamblers.


Here I’m indebted to Lutheran Professor John Brug for the main drift of the following (see: http://netnet.net/~messiah/gambling.html )

Risk and Chance

People often try to justify the element of risk involved in gambling by saying that all of life is risky. It certainly is true that every venture in life involves a type of risk doing business, investing in the stock market, crossing the street, riding in an airplane, falling in love, getting married, even doing church work. But just as there is a legitimate and necessary distinction between the kind of risk which Satan asked Jesus to take by jumping off the Temple and the necessary “risks” which Jesus took in entrusting His life to his Father, so we may legitimately distinguish between the risks and hazards which we face in the course of a life entrusted to God and the risks and hazards to which we unnecessarily expose ourselves for thrills or profit. Strictly speaking, we should not say that the “risks” we face in our daily business and travels or the dangers we face due to faithfulness to God are risks at all, for when we trust our entire life into God’s hands and are willing to accept his will, no matter what it may be, we can never suffer true loss.

People occasionally try to justify gambling by claiming that the element of chance was involved in the Old Testament use of lots or the Urim and Thummim and in the method of choosing Judas’ successor. However, there is no legitimate point of comparison between the type of chance involved in these Scriptural practices and the type of chance involved in gambling. the Old Testament lots were specifically sanctioned and commanded by God (Lev. 1 :8, Josh. 14:2, Ex. 28:30, Num. 27:21, Dt. 33:8). Let gamblers produce such commands of God for the lots they cast! Likewise, in the choice of Matthias to succeed Judas no real risk was involved, Both candidates, Justus and Matthias, were fully qualified for the position, so the final choice was entrusted to the Lord in prayer.

We would conclude then that risk and chance are not wrong when they are only the normal uncertainties which God expects us to face in life. They, however, become wrong when we expose ourselves and what God has given us to unnecessary, uncalled for risks. “Taking risks” with our possessions must be determined on the basis of good Christian stewardship.

However, the real crux of the problem of gambling is not the element of risk or chance, but the question of motivation. This is the real heart of the problem, for if the motivation involved is wrong, gambling is wrong even when the element of skill predominates over simple chance.

Motivation and Purpose

The basic purpose of most gambling is not to help and serve others, but to help ourselves at their expense. Luther observed: No one gambles with another in order to give away to the other what is his own (for he could do that without gambling), nor in order to lose what is his own, nor in order to seek the gain of the other man as though it were his own. This is why gambling is always contrary to love and is motivated by greed because a man seeks, to the harm of another, what does not belong to him. (What Luther Says p.1343.)

The basic Christian objection to gambling is that it is an attempt to gain something from our neighbor without giving a fair service in return. If we really love our neighbor, will we wish to win at his expense? In gambling are we heeding the admonition of Scripture, “Do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others”. Phil. 2:4 NASV. Christians must keep two facts in mind when seeking gain or profit from their activities. They must give fair labor or exchange for what they receive. They seek to earn for themselves, not from selfish motivation, but in order to be of service to others. “Let those who steal steal no longer, but rather let them labor, performing with their own hands what is good, in order that they may have something to share with those i n need.” (Eph. 4:28)

A Christian’s life is to be devoted to serving others, not to being served. In most gambling part of the enjoyment is taking advantage of someone else’s loss. Gambling is nonproductive, and can be justified only by arguing its entertainment value or the good use made of a portion of the revenue. Since the end never justifies the means, gambling cannot be justified on these grounds if greed is involved. The fact that dishonesty and selfish motivation can be practiced in any form of business cannot be used as an excuse to justify gambling, if gain at the expense of another is part of the very nature of gambling. The common consent involved in gambling does not excuse the stealing involved in gambling anymore than common consent excuses the murder involved in dueling.

Bringing together the main points which we have discussed, I would define gambling as “unnecessarily risking the possessions which God has entrusted to us in games of chance or skill in the hope of gaining something from our neighbor without giving him a fair service or product in return whether for the sake of profit or thrills”. So defined, we must say that all gambling is a sin.

We must, however, still consider the question whether everything which is popularly considered can be categorically include in the definition just given. Can we say that every form and instance of “gambling” does indeed involve selfish hope of improper gain?

Types of Gambling

We can divide gambling into three general categories: social, professional, and governmental. Social and professional gambling can further be divided into legal and illegal gambling.

We can immediately dispose of all forms of illegal gambling. They are offlimits for a Christian because the Scriptural command, “Submit yourself to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake” (I Peter 2:13) certainly includes obedience to laws restricting gambling.

The real problem is that more and more forms of gambling are not only being legalized, but they are being sponsored by governments, charities, and even churches. People are being offered an evergrowing number of choices when it comes to gambling: card and dice games, various kinds of racing, all kinds of lotteries and raffles, bingo, sports betting, personal wagers, and more.

Since Scripture does not speak directly on gambling, I believe we must beware of blanket condemnations and sweeping generalizations. We must beware of making ourselves judges of the motives of the heart. Can we make the judgment, “Such and such always involves greed and hope of unearned gain. If you do it, you must be greedy”. We also must beware of letting ourselves become judges or courts of appeal to whom people come for our ruling on every specific problem that arises. We must also beware of judging by a double standard so that we can be accused of inconsistency. For example, if we oppose all gambling on the grounds that it provides strong temptations to sin, we must oppose drinking on the same grounds. If we oppose all gambling on the grounds that it is poor stewardship, don’t we have to oppose smoking and many forms of luxurious entertainment on the same grounds? I think the whole history of the church’s view of insurance warns us of the danger of making sweeping generalizations and judging motives, even on the basis of general Scriptural principles.

We can put gambling activities on a continuum from serious/illegal (eg. Mafia-sponsored gambling dens) where the idea is to rob suckers for the benefit of the criminally rich through casinos where the odds are stacked against ordinary people, to fun (a once-a-year sweep, perhaps Bingo). Then there’s the ‘guilt-by-association’ extension: some Christian city missions etc. would not accept monetary gifts where gambling was involved. (By the same logic, a conscientious teetoller should not buy from supermarkets that sell liquor. We must allow one another to choose the point along this continuum consistent with principle-for-us. However we can flatly say that any gambling which is illegal, which is based on greed or a desire to profit at another’s expense, or which is against one’s own conscience is wrong and must be avoided. But what if a person objects that none of these applies a particular case? There are still very serious questions which a Christian must raise about participation in gambling.

Pastors/Christian leaders have a responsibility not only in advising and guiding in particular cases, but in our regular teaching of sanctification, particularly the 7th, 9th, and 10th commandments. However, I do not believe our responsibility is to be arbiters who are called upon to make a definitive ruling in every case of casuistry, but to be shepherds of the soul who provide our members with solid Scriptural guidelines on the basis of which they as Christians can reach God-pleasing decisions with regard to gambling and any involvement in it.

Here are some factors/motivations which have helped me come to a more informed position on this tricky issue (from the least to the most significant):

1. It’s an inefficient way to get taxes. The chairwoman of the Australian Institute of Gambling Research at the university of Western Sydney, Jan Macmillen, says while gambling revenue is beginning to compensate governments for a decline in stamp duty and payroll tax receipts, ‘it is a stunningly inefficient way to collect taxes… In bald figures the government is paying about $2 to private entrepreneurs for every $1 collected in gambling taxes… Here we have a GST that people are willing to pay. If governments had said a decade back that they were going to raise a tax by 69% they would never have been re-elected. Well, they have done it with gambling, and no one seems to mind… The concentration of poker machines in working-class clubs and hotels has imposed a regressive tax on those least able to pay.’

2. It’s robbing the poor. The vice-chancellor of Melbourne’s Monash University, David Robinson, an expert on forms of addiction, is blunt: ‘Gambling is an almost perfect system for taking the money out of the pockets of the poor and putting it into the pockets of the rich.’

3. The gambling industry is an economic activity which produces no gain for the community at large, is destructive of retail and small business interests… and wreaks havoc on families and home.

4. Am I unnecessarily exposing myself to temptations to sin? Am I forgetting that I too still have a sinful nature subject to greed and selfishness? Am I underestimating the compulsive hold which gambling can gain over a person?

5. Am I tempting someone else with temptations which may be too strong for them? Will I be able to stand before the Lord of all and say that I served all in love?

6. Does my gambling diminish my effectiveness as a Christian witness in my community by raising doubt in the minds of the “weak” about the sincerity of my Christian faith and life? Can a responsible Christian citizen support activities which time after time have led to increased support for organized crime, corruption and bribery of public officials, and have created an atmosphere for more and more gambling and polluted the moral climate? Can churches and governments justify using gambling as a substitute for responsible stewardship and responsible taxation?

7. Will I be able to stand before God, the giver of all, and say that I have used His gifts wisely if I have used even a portion of the time, abilities, and possessions he has given me in gambling? Is it good stewardship to pour money down the drain in games which you know have the odds stacked against you? What is the connection between my act/s of gambling and a materialistic/covetous desire for improper gain?

8. The ultimate test: to what extent is my gambling activity an act of love for and service to others rather than for selfish gain?

Above all, when we discuss the problems raised by gambling, we will not want to approach the discussion with a Pharisaical attitude which delights in legalistic judging, nor will we want to be in with a belligerent attitude which says, “I dare you to try to prove to me that there is anything wrong with gambling”. A Christian will begin by asking, “What would the Lord want me, his servant, to do? How can I serve him best?”. We will say, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”. We will then genuinely seek the Lord’s answer in Scripture and through prayer. We will then think about exhortations like that in Colossians 3:3ff. “You have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life, appears then you will also appear with him in glory. Put to death, therefore, what is earthly in you: immorality, impurity, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry … What ever you do, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

As we seek to deal honestly with the question, we will pray (to paraphrase an old hymn): Create in me a new heart Lord, that gladly I may obey your Word. And nothing but what you will do I desire. With such new life my soul inspire. Grant that I may love you and others. ‘O grant me power and strength, my God, To strive against my flesh and blood.’

By Rowland Croucher

See also Tim Costello’s article Casino Myths


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