Monday, April 27, 2015

A Safe Bet? Gambling, Lotteries, Raffles, and Games of Chance

My article from this week's newspapers answers a reader question about Christian participation in gambling and other games of chance:

Q:  Are gambling and other games of chance a sin, and what does the Bible have to say about them?

Many people raise concerns about gambling for both moral and practical reasons.  Perhaps this has something to do with the historic connection between gambling, organized crime, and bootlegging during the Prohibition era, and the tendency of some types of Christians to group smoking, dancing, gambling (or even just card-playing) , and alcohol consumption together as sort of a family of evils. 

Other concerns arise more from social justice, because the poor often suffer the greatest losses from gambling while the rich are most likely to benefit from the industry, or because abuse of gambling or unrealistic expectations have had the consequence of financial tragedy for many families. 

In contrast, the perceived connection between Bingo and religious institutions is a familiar cultural element, and raffles or other contests where a donation carries the potential to win money or merchandise is a common way of fundraising for some charitable organizations like religious schools.   

Relying on chance to make decisions does not seem to be spoken against in the Bible.  In fact, we even see an example of this when the Disciples choose a replacement for Judas after the Resurrection by drawing lots among the qualified candidates, and I have encountered a handful of Christian congregations who choose their lay officers or call their new pastor in a similar fashion, by drawing the names from among the qualifying candidates rather than by using a vote as a means of selection. 

An activity that bears a resemblance to betting or wagering is daily fantasy sports, where players deposit money in an account and use it to enter contests based on player performance in various sports.  While there is the potential to win or lose money based on the results, most states consider this a game of skill, like entering a bowling tournament with a cash prize, rather than a game of chance.  Because of the skill and attention involved, as opposed to random chance, this can be a wholesome form of recreation, provided participation is done responsibly. While this means it is technically not gambling, it is subject to some of the same dangers as gambling if a person develops an unhealthy habitual attachment to it or seeks to solve all of their financial problems by means of it.  

No clear, concise statement can be found in Scripture, either for or against the pure-chance sort of gambling, like lotteries and casino games, that we encounter today.  However, several of the Ten Commandments to address issues which might be relevant to a Christian’s decision about whether to engage in particular types of gambling. 

The First Commandment would be the most significant of these.  It forbids having other gods, which is not limited to carved or sculpted idols or deities of other religions, but includes anything from which the person honors or seeks blessing from more highly than God.  It is easy to conceive how gambling or the gains one hopes to achieve from it might become a higher priority to a person than their love, respect, and trust for God.  In this case, gambling, and any other part of human life, can become a false god for a person and therefore sinful. 

If gambling keeps a person from attending services or if one gambles in a way that is illegal, these would be obvious sins against the Third Commandment regarding the Sabbath and the Fourth Commandment which requires obedience to those in authority. 

The commandments which apply the most specifically to gambling are the Seventh, Ninth, and Tenth, which forbid stealing, other forms of dishonest gain, and coveting.  Because the odds in any game of chance are always stacked in favor of the house, those who operate for-profit gambling establishments are very likely taking advantage of their neighbors by their business. 

Likewise those who believe they will get rich quick by gambling are attempting to gain for themselves at the expense of their neighbors who have lost, and those who seek to gain from gambling what they cannot achieve by other conventional means could easily be coveting—seeking to gain something that is not rightfully theirs because they are not content with what they have been given. 

Even if one did not consider gambling a sin, the Bible frequently admonishes believers to use their earthly resources wisely, and this argument from wisdom may be the most compelling reason for Christians either to limit their participation in games of chance to purely recreational levels, or refrain entirely.  For example, a person might use a sum of money for gambling, which they could multiply by a win, but will more likely lose entirely. 

If they were to invest this same sum, they would have a much higher probability of short-term gain and a near-certain likelihood of gain in the long-term.  Similarly, if they were to donate it to a charitable cause, they might give up the potential for multiplication, but would ensure that some person or some cause would be helped by it. 

So, while the Bible does not contain a particular allowance or prohibition toward games of chance, they are certainly sinful if they become idolatrous or a means for dishonest gain, and in the majority of cases, participation in for-profit gambling would be ill-advised on the grounds of being unwise if it goes beyond a minimal cost for purely recreational purposes. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

To Lodge or not to Lodge...

For this week's newspapers, I answered a question about what would keep a Christian from joining or participating in a lodge or other fraternal organization, such as the Masons, Eastern Star, Shriners, Odd Fellows, Eagles, Elks, Moose, etc.  

Q:  Why do some churches forbid their members from joining lodges, secret societies, or other fraternal organizations?

While the reasons behind prohibitions on lodge membership by some churches are explained in diverse ways, they all relate to the common theme of concerns about compromising spiritual convictions. 

In the cases where the organization does not have any decidedly spiritual or ritual elements to their activity as a club, there would typically be no concerns, and members of most churches would be free to participate in organizations like the Lions, Kiwanis, or Rotary.  Only a very small number of churches would raise any objection to participation in these kinds of community service organizations.  When they do it is usually because they do not believe in praying with people outside of their own denomination, but this could usually be resolved by the member excusing himself during the meeting’s opening prayer. 

Other times, the activities of an organization take on such an obviously spiritual quality that a church or denomination classifies them as a religion in their own right, which means that an individual could not be a member of both that organization and his church, because it would amount to being a member of two different religions.  In other cases, the secrecy of the organization’s rituals creates an environment where they are forbidden to members of a church out of caution. 

In the majority of cases, it is a particular element of what is known about a lodge or other organization’s activity and rituals which results in members of a church being forbidden from joining it. 

One example of such concerns would be if a lodge ritual involves prayers where people whose religions worship different gods engage in joint prayer as if they were addressing the same god, or they actively promote all religions as equally valid before god or imply that all religions are just different paths to a common deity.  In such cases, many churches would prohibit their members from participation on the grounds that it would constitute idolatry. 

In other cases, membership in a lodge might involve making promises or acknowledging ideas in membership oaths with contradict Scripture or the teachings of the church.  In these cases, the Christian could not have loyalty to both and would ultimately be left to choose between his lodge and his church. 

These organizations often have a concept of afterlife that is promoted in their rituals, and if that concept contradicts what is taught in Scripture, the Christian could not in good conscience promote the ideas of the lodge against those of his church.  Similarly, there are often ideas promoted about how one reaches the proposed afterlife destination, which usually include upholding the virtues and principles of the lodge, which would be a contradiction to the Christian teaching that salvation comes only through trusting Jesus.  Likewise here, the Christian could not in good conscience promote the ideas of that lodge and remain consistent with the teachings of his church. 

When any of the above are taught or practiced by a lodge or other fraternal organization, it causes a conflict of conscience for Christians of many denominations and creates an environment where membership in it contradicts the teachings of a member’s church.  In such cases, many churches consider lodge participation to be incompatible with Christian teaching and church membership.