Popular and widespread, state governments use it to raise millions of dollars annually through multiple forms of the lottery while others consider it to be a sport worthy of broadcast on ESPN and other networks. And, the proliferation of casinos pales in comparison to the number of church halls hosting at least weekly gambling adventures.
According to the New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OA SAS), the problem of gambling is surprisingly acute among young people, 14 percent of children between the ages of 13-17 being at risk. What is more, most of them are introduced to gambling by their parents (to which we might add their grandparents, or their churches.)
The number of compulsive gamblers and the dollars involved ($12 billion gambled on the Internet alone in 2005) will not drop unless the church takes a stand, challenging this blight.
The Reformed tradition and the Presbyterian Church have long opposed gambling. John Calvin approved restrictions against gambling and card playing in the city of Geneva. In the Institutes (II .8.45-46), a discussion of the eighth commandment argues that believers are forbidden to pant after the possessions of others, and are commanded to help them keep what they have. For Calvin, all goods that people possess are gifts of God and if anyone takes them away they are guilty of setting aside God’s dispensation. (IV . 12.22).
Somewhat similarly, in the discussion of the commandment in the Westminster Larger Catechism, a long list of sins is forbidden (7.252, Question 142) that includes all “unjust or sinful ways of taking or withholding from our neighbor what belongs to him, or of enriching ourselves; covetousness, inordinate prizing and affecting worldly goods; distrustful and distracting cares and studies in getting, keeping, and using them; envying at the prosperity of others; as likewise idleness, prodigality, wasteful gaming, and all other ways whereby we do unduly prejudice our own outward estate … ”
More recently, the General Assembly has opposed all forms of gambling as an abdication of stewardship. In 1992, for example, the Assembly urged elected officials to oppose state sponsored gambling and encouraged councils of churches and public policy advisory groups to resist the spread of legalized gambling.
In 2000 the GA urged Presbyterians to refuse to participate in such activities and asked members to work to shut down all state-sponsored gambling. In a strongly worded theological and ethical admonition the Assembly said, “Considering the importance given to personal freedom and responsibility and to Jesus’ call to take pleasure in all of God’s gifts, each of us must ask ourselves whether gambling, in any form, can be consistent with our relationship to God and a responsible use of our freedom. … Gambling becomes unloving, unjust, and destructive and elevates personal pleasure, social experience, and economic gain before God and neighbor … .”
Elders and other church leaders should ask themselves, How are we responding to the pervasiveness of gambling in our society? and How are our churches making it worse? Raising funds via raffles and carnival games come to mind. Churches often sponsor Alcoholics’ Anonymous groups; how about sponsoring a chapter of Gamblers’ Anonymous?
Considering the emotional and spiritual damage that gambling does to our families, the negative economic impact it has on our personal budgets, and the moral questions it raises at every level, it is surprising that more sessions do not make their opposition clearly known to their members and the community at large.
EARL S. JOHN SON JR. is the pastor of First Church, Johnstown, N.Y., and adjunct professor of religious studies at Siena College.