Does gambling violate God’s law? YHWH says in the Decalogue, Thou shalt not steal; the question of lawfulness concerns primarily this commandment.
What the Eighth Commandment allows and commands
Luther’s Small Catechism explains the commandment’s New Testament import most succinctly:
We should fear and love God that we may not take our neighbour’s money or property, nor get them by false ware or dealing, but help him to improve and protect his property and business [that his means are preserved and his condition is improved].
The Heidelberg Catechism expounds this interpretation in greater detail, first as to what God forbids and second as to what he requires:
Question 110. What doth God forbid in the eighth commandment?
Answer. God forbids not only those thefts, and robberies, which are punishable by the magistrate; but he comprehends under the name of theft all wicked tricks and devices, whereby we design to appropriate to ourselves the goods which belong to our neighbor: whether it be by force, or under the appearance of right, as by unjust weights, ells [measures of length], measures, fraudulent merchandise, false coins, usury, or by any other way forbidden by God; as also all covetousness, all abuse and waste of his gifts.
Question 111. But what doth God require in this commandment?
Answer. That I promote the advantage of my neighbor in every instance I can or may; and deal with him as I desire to be dealt with by others: further also that I faithfully labor, so that I may be able to relieve the needy.
Similarly in the Westminster Shorter Catechism and even, though less singularly, in the catechism of the Book of Common Prayer.
Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. In the area of money, I assert, the general principle of the eighth commandment of the Decalogue requires a charitable spirit that seeks win-win œconomic dealings. It follows that – aside from the unsystematic matter of gifts – we may lawfully make material gain by discovery, by creation or by exchange that can reasonably be called win-win transaction. Trade is potentially win-win, and so is capital investment.
Gambling is beyond the pale
The same is not true of gambling: inherently a win-lose structure like coercion and fraud, it forces one to profit at another’s expense – compare even the lending and borrowing of money at interest, which even when the interest rate exceeds the rate of inflation can often benefit all parties, especially in the realm of investments.
I shall borrow some questions raised by an Antithesis article (Vol. 1, No. 6):
In particular, I suggest asking the following questions in the course of examining one’s heart on this issue of the legitimacy of seeking entertainment in games that are used for gambling.
- Am I limiting my total expenditure (including the cost of the trip, if any) to the amount that I can, with a clear conscience before God, devote to mere entertainment?
- Do I either hope or expect to win anything?
- Do I find myself praying for a ‘win’?
- Would I be equally enamored of the game if participation were free of charge?
- Do I regard the bet as a ‘user fee’ (rather than a stake in hope of winning my neighbor’s property)? Do I always place the minimum permitted bet?
If the answers to these question are ‘yes, no, no, yes, yes’, then it is probably okay to play. But then, answering in this fashion proves that you are not, by intention, gambling at all, but rather paying to play a game that you find recreational or entertaining. This, then, is the resolution of the gray areas cases, which does not require compromising Biblical principle. Nevertheless, so inclined is the human heart to self-deception and rationalization, that I am inclined to recommend against participation even in this restricted sense. A little leaven leavens the whole lump – make certain there is not even a grain of it!
Perhaps human self-deception is why Luther, exaggerating a little in his characteristic way, wrote in a treatise against usury, ‘Money won by gambling is not usury either, and yet it is not won without self-seeking and love of self, and not without sin; the profits of prostitution are not usury, but they are earned by sin; and wealth that is acquired by cursing, swearing and slander is not usury, and yet it is acquired by sin.’ While Luther seems to acknowledge that sin isn’t a logical necessity of gambling, the win-lose structure lends itself readily to a self-seeking heart, a heart that seeks its own profit through others’ loss.
Of course this ethical requirement condemns more than gambling: not all bank interest, for example, is biblically lawful, even if contracted voluntarily. As it is, however, I’ve focused on gambling in order to draw attention to an industry, soi-disant, whose very existence, unlike that of moneylending, is morally questionable. Although to be frank I don’t think Las Vegas should exist, my main concern is that Christians support the unjust money machine, often indulging in its machinations themselves when they visit the city. Others who have never gone to Vegas see professional gambling nonetheless as a lawful vocation, a legitimate way to make a living. Given the number of distortions that gambling occasions, I’ve chosen to address this issue to Christians.
If gambling is sinful, the things to do are on both the individual and the corporate levels. First, it must be abolished at least in Christian churches, both in official church events and in the lives of parishioners, and no tithe or offering may be accepted from gambling wins. Second, Christians involved in civil justice, seeing the vicious structure of gambling, should seek to restrain it for all. The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.