Can Christians gamble? That is, is it permissible for followers of Christ to place a financial stake in games of chance for financial gain?
The question is a moral one, and we ought to distinguish it, subtly but crucially, from issues of policy. Policy includes a personal code of conduct, a way of life within a Christian community, and a government policy. For example, while alcohol consumption is forbidden among Methodist pastors by church policy, many Methodist pastors believe responsible alcohol consumption is morally permissible.
We can think of biblical principles as defining a set of boundaries. These boundaries come together to define a permissible area of play—much like the boundaries surrounding a playground. We transgress and sin when we step beyond those boundaries.
The question of whether Christians can gamble is then a question of whether there exists some permissible area of play. And if we should take a stand that Christians cannot gamble, then we must show that the permissible area of play is precisely nil.
What the Bible Says about Gambling
The Bible does not directly address the issue of gambling, even as gambling existed during biblical times. Gambling existed in ancient Egypt and included an ancient form of roulette. Gambling existed in ancient Rome, among which were games of dice. In Scripture, we find gambling occurring when the guards cast lots to divide up Jesus’ clothing as He was crucified (Mark 15:24).
How Should Christians View Money?
Even as the Bible does not address gambling directly, it has much to say about what an appropriate attitude towards money should be. Much of these are applicable to gambling.
1 Timothy 6:10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.
Colossians 3:5 Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.
Matthew 6:24 No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.
Scripture makes it abundantly clear that there should be no place for the love of money or greed. Any endeavour undertaken out of such motivations, including gambling, is clearly out of place.
The Pitfalls of the “I Want to Get Rich Quick” Mindset
The Bible also has much to say about general tendencies surrounding the accumulation of wealth.
1 Timothy 6:9 Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.
Proverbs 21:5b … haste leads to poverty.
Many unfortunate stories demonstrate the general truth of these verses—stories of loan sharks harassing gamblers who have fallen deep into debt, stories of families falling apart because of financial woes brought about by a gambling addiction, and stories of suicide because of the financial ruin wrought by severe gambling losses. In other cases, stories of diminished bank accounts, frayed relationships, anxiety, and mental health issues.
Avoid Stumbling Others
A Christian’s actions go beyond individualistic considerations. Scripture exhorts Christians to be mindful of stumbling a brother or sister. The same applies to any endeavour as it applies to gambling, if gambling is permissible.
Romans 14:13b Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister.
1 Corinthians 8:9 Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.
Can Christians Gamble Legitimately?
Can Christians, in exercising their liberty, legitimately gamble?
Is there room for a Christian to stake money in games of chance for financial gain in a way that (i) does not involve greed, (ii) does not lead him to foolishness and ruin, (iii) does not stumble other Christians, and does not run afoul of other biblical considerations?
There was a Christian took his family on a cruise vacation. Among the onboard entertainment facilities, there was a video arcade, a wine bar, and a swimming pool. Then there was a casino. Through the digital billboards near the dining area, passengers were informed that they were entitled to free jackpot credits which they could claim in the casino. These credits could not be withdrawn as cash. But any jackpot winnings resulting from the use of these credits could.
Here’s what the believer reasoned:
- It is rational for me to seek financial gain, as that would provide additional funds for the family to enjoy the cruise vacation.
- If I do not utilise the jackpot credits, I would forfeit them entirely. Utilising them means the possibility of financial gain.
- If I limit my maximum losses to the credits provided, I would be no worse off in any case.
- If I make financial gains, I shall impose a trailing stop. Otherwise, odds that favour the house means that all winnings would be returned through the Law of Large Numbers.
- Because Covid regulations are in place, mask wearing is mandatory. This makes it nearly impossible for anyone to recognise me.
With that, he proceeded to the casino to gamble by playing the jackpot, setting his mind that he would not put in any additional funds should he lose all his credits. After losing a few rounds initially, he struck a mini jackpot. Even as the machine counted off his cash winnings and celebratory music blared, he set his mind that if he should lose half his winnings as measured from the high watermark, he would cash out and quit. A few more small wins came and went. But then, the tide turned against him and he began losing round after round. As soon as he lost half his winnings, he cashed out and quit in a near mechanical fashion.
Let’s compare this case study against Biblical principles:
- Was he ruled by greed?
- In reasoning as he did, and in acting with such a degree of self-control, he was not ruled by greed. Someone who is greedy is driven by impulse. He would find himself losing reason and self-control.
- Would his actions lead to foolishness and ruin?
- His actions would not lead to foolishness and ruin. If the same could be repeated a thousand times, it is likely that he would make some financial gains in a small proportion of these and lose all his credits in the majority of others. That is, the expected gain is positive and the worst case is equal to not gambling at all, making it less than shrewd to not gamble.
- Would he stumble other weak-willed Christians?
- The concern of stumbling other weak-willed Christians did not apply, as there was nobody there who would recognise him as a Christian. This was made all the more likely by mandatory mask wearing.
Should Christians Avoid Gambling?
Gambling is generally discouraged among Christians and viewed in a bad light, even as there are differing views concerning its permissibility.
The proliferation of gambling in many forms—lotteries, online gambling, sports betting, social gambling which typically settles around a game of cards such as poker or mahjong—makes the following question all the more pertinent: is it permissible for Christians to place a financial stake in games of chance which may involve a combination of luck and skill for the purpose of financial gain?
If we were to pause and examine the consequences of gambling, the human tendency to give in to greed and impulse with our fallen nature, and the play area circumscribed by biblical principles, we might picture an image of a small foothold atop a steep cliff with sharp rocks all round. Any misstep can literally lead to serious injury and death. Given the generally limited benefits of gambling in relation to the terribly severe negative consequences, we can then understand why Christians generally discourage such activity.
Even so, policy is to be distinguished from permissibility. One may consistently hold that it is a sound policy for Christians to avoid gambling entirely, even as one holds that it is morally permissible for Christians to gamble under a very narrow set of circumstances.
The issue of a Christian approach towards gambling is best placed within the larger context of Christian financial stewardship. If you know of someone struggling with financial issues or otherwise interested in learning more about Christian financial stewardship, The Financial Machine provides readers with an approach towards Christian financial stewardship that is both theologically robust and practically effective.