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Question and Answer

Gambling and Lotteries

Question:

What is the OPC stand on lotteries (state run or other), gambling, and the whole run of games of chance (is there really such a thing)?

This is to help me in a discussion I am having with co-workers, and also as we bring others that are not raised in the faith into the church. How do we peacefully show them what may be right or wrong?

Answer:

In addition to your main question you mentioned that you would like to know how to peacefully engage those outside the Church in ethical discussions. In God's providence, then, it seems good to me that this is your topic of immediate interest. As Christians, we are often tempted to give easy answers to difficult questions. While we must never compromise the basic truths of Scripture, such as salvation through Christ alone, we should also recognize and even affirm in our conversations with those who do not share our faith that some matters are complicated and require careful, thoughtful reasoning through Biblical teaching. Rather than undermine our standing with them, this can give us greater credibility when we take an absolute stand, for they will have learned we are not arbitrary but have good reason for what we believe.

The OPC's official stand on this question is found in the Westminster Larger Catechism #142 (the Westminster Standards are available here), which teaches that the Eighth Commandment forbids "wasteful gaming." To get at the full range of issues raised by gambling we should consider the full scope of things forbidden by the Eighth Commandment, as set forth in Question 142 of the Westminster Larger Catechism:

The sins forbidden in the eighth commandment, besides the neglect of the duties required, are, theft, robbery, man-stealing, and receiving anything that is stolen; fraudulent dealing, false weights and measures, removing land marks, injustice and unfaithfulness in contracts between man and man, or in matters of trust; oppression, extortion, usury, bribery, vexatious lawsuits, unjust enclosures and depopulations; engrossing commodities to enhance the price; unlawful callings, and all other 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, and defrauding ourselves of the due use and comfort of that estate which God has given us.

There has long been disagreement as to whether this reference indicates that gaming per se is wasteful (and therefore forbidden by the Eighth Commandment) or that not all gambling is prohibited, but only that which is excessive, dissipates one's wealth, and leads a person into poverty. "He who works his land will have abundant food, but the one who chases fantasies will have his fill of poverty" (Prov. 28:19, NIV).

Such prominent theologians as Richard Baxter defend the latter view, reckoning this as a matter of Christian liberty, since there are no specific Scriptures which condone or prohibit such gaming. In response to the question of whether it is lawful for the Christian to "lay wagers," he replies:

"Answ. Yes, if these three things concur: 1. That the true end of the wager is, to be a penalty to him that shall be guilty of a rash and false assertion, and not to gratify the covetousness of the other. 2. That it be no greater a sum than can be demanded and paid, without breach of charity, or too much hurt to the loser (as above the proportion of his error). 3. That it be no other but what both parties are truly willing to stand to the loss of, if either of them lose, and that beforehand they truly seem so willing to each other." (Richard Baxter, A Christian Directory)

Baxter goes on to explain how the Christian may lawfully engage in other forms of "gaming," specifically including the lottery.

The main point to observe is that the question of gambling, even for those who support its lawfulness, cannot be settled without bringing in various related principles, including the Eighth Commandment, which, according to the Westminster Larger Catechism, indicates that "wasteful gaming" is a sin.

Reformed churches in our country have generally taken the position that gambling itself is a violation of God's Law. Some (e.g., William Plumber, The Law of God) argue that it is a violation of the Third Commandment, as an abuse of God's providence. Many more cite the Eighth Commandment (Robert L. Dabney, Charles Hodge, and Puritan Thomas Boston in his Commentary on the Shorter Catechism). Their arguments are that God has appointed only two ways to obtain property: by labor or by gifts. Since gambling in any form gives the increase from neither of these, and takes away from our neighbor, it is necessarily sin.

In all these instances, the issue comes back to two questions.

1. How is "gambling" defined? Is a particular game of such a nature that it benefits some at the expense of others? How serious is that "expense" to the loser? While Presbyterians have historically denounced gambling because of its resulting impoverishment (Minutes of the Presbyterian Church, 1818, 1827, 1830 quoted in Baird's Digest), is it intrinsic to any such game?

As you might imagine, it is difficult to say precisely what amount of gambling is "wasteful"; this will vary with each individual. In addition to this consideration, we must also inquire as to whether those who promote gambling are truly helping their neighbor to keep the Eighth Commandment. State-run lotteries often advertise themselves to populations with the least disposable income, offering them as a get-rich-quick scheme.

2. What is the motivation involved? The entire concept and attractiveness of instant wealth presumes an "inordinate affection of worldly goods." Whether admitted or not, the heart's sin that underlies much gambling is greed. The thrill of the Lottery is not whether a particular number is drawn, but whether I will become rich from it! Otherwise, I could just write down a number and save the price of a ticket. This is a great point from which to address your co-workers about their heart's condition before God.

While there is not an unequivocal answer to your question, there is clear teaching from God's Word which should help anyone in his or her particular conscience to decide what is right and best in the sight of God.

One final thought. You ask about "games of chance." Is there really such a thing? According to Proverbs 16:33, "The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD." God "works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will" (Eph. 1:11). We are not told the details of God's decrees in Scripture, but we are told that we are to obey his preceptive will as summarized in the Ten Commandments.

May the Lord by his Holy Spirit continue to guide you through his Word as you seek to understand his will and explain it to others in a way which will make them desire to know him.


About Q&A

"Questions and Answers" is a weekly feature of the OPC website. At least one new question is posted each week, so there should always be something new here for you to read. (For those who would like to look at previous questions and answers, they will continue to be available as well.)

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