Wednesday, September 19, 2007

What's Wrong With Gambling?

My last post drew a comment from Scott Roche: "Of course gambling is no longer seen as a sin by most Christians. Just out of curiosity, what would you use to justify that it is?" I found the comment last night, but was too tired to respond then. I also wanted time to think about it before writing about it.

It is true that gambling is not directly condemned in the Bible as some other activities are--drunkenness, adultery, and so on. And C.S. Lewis had one of his characters point out in "The Pilgrim's Regress" that God Himself could be considered an inveterate gambler--He takes risks to accomplish His purposes, risks that apparently He considers worthwhile. And on the human level, there are many risk-taking situations in business and other areas that could be thought of as gambling.

But I do think there is a significant difference between the risk-taking mentioned above and the gambling for money--poker in its various forms, slot machines, betting on the horses, numbers games, state lotteries, etc.--that go on today. (The way some people play the stock market could be included too.)

Scott, my first approach to answering your question is to do as Jesus often did and ask you a question in return: How does taking someone's money at cards or with dice fit in with "Love your neighbor as yourself"? Or "Love one another as I have loved you"? How do you seriously love someone and yet take his money? (And if you think the corporations who run the casinos and manage the lotteries are still fair game, go back and look up what Jesus said about the quibbling the scribes and Pharisees used to get around the Law at times. Corporations are a legal fiction in our culture, but they still have people involved--shareholders, employees, management--and they may punish those who lose too much of their money.)

The other conclusion I come to is that gambling for money comes under the heading of "coveting" which is the subject of the tenth Commandment: "You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor." (Ex. 20:17, NASB) "Anything that belongs to your neighbor" would include his cash. I was taught in a theology class that the Ten Commandments are rooted in the nature of God Himself: He is truth, so lying is wrong; He is faithful, so adultery is wrong; and because He is generous, coveting is wrong. The New Testament both condemns coveting and encourages generosity in the followers of Christ. If a Christian goes into a casino or a "friendly" card game with the expectation of coming out with more money than he carried in, he's probably coveting.
(Of course, I can only say "probably", but God knows the heart--for sure.)

One other standard of evaluation, advanced by Jesus: Look at the fruit. What has been the fruit of gambling in Dearborn County, Indiana? Well, the local governments and the state definitely have more money than before--the town of Lawrenceburg and the county have spent money like drunken sailors for the last ten years (they've also had to fend off attempts by the state to increase its share and reduce theirs). The state seems to go from one fiscal crisis to another, so the casinos have not been a real help. Lawrenceburg and Dearborn County have more problems with drunken driving and crime than they used to--they had to expand the capacity of the local court system to handle the increase. There are a lot of ads offering help for people with gambling problems. And since there are now three riverboat casinos in three consecutive counties, the one in the middle is struggling at times because the other two siphon off so much of the traffic. I really can't say the results are that impressive.

By the way, Scott's statement that "gambling is no longer seen as a sin by most Christians" fits in with something I did say in that last post: that too many churches are full of "churchgoers" rather than disciples of Jesus.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Appearances Can Be Deceiving

I have been thinking about my last post, and the comment that it came from. And I ended up looking back at one of the events that prepared me to think about the problems in today's church structures and practices.

Back in the mid-'90s we were living in Dearborn County, Indiana, on the Ohio River just west of Cincinnati, Ohio. The state of Indiana had recently decided to have riverboat gambling on the Ohio River, and various counties were deciding whether or not to get involved. Dearborn County's officials chose to pursue it, and the issue was put on the ballot.

Now Dearborn County was a changing area. The eastern part was turning into suburbs of Cincinnati, with subdivisions filling in the open spaces. The towns--Greendale, Lawrenceburg, and Aurora, were picking up some new residents from the city, but hadn't visibly changed yet. The western half- to two-thirds of the county was still predominantly rural.

It also appeared to be as religious as any other small-town/rural area. There were the usual mainline Protestant churches in the towns, and a Catholic church in Lawrenceburg. There were a couple of megachurches in Bright, up in the suburban area near the Ohio line, a Methodist one and a Christian Church/Church of Christ. And the countryside was dotted with church buildings, mostly of the traditional denominations--Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, and a sprinkling of others. They weren't on every crossroads, but there were plenty of them.

There was an appearance of strength of religious faith in the area. And when the ballot issue on riverboat gambling came up, nearly all the churches opposed it. (And it wasn't often they agreed on much.) Yet when the vote came, the gambling issue sailed right through, regardless of the opposition of the churches. Within a year the casino was open. The churches of Dearborn County were not as strong as they appeared to be.

I guess this event caused me to look a little closer. I began to notice that those numerous country churches mostly had only six to ten cars in the lot on Sunday morning. I got wind of a Methodist pastor and his wife, also a pastor, who served two churches each to make a living. Former church buildings in the region ended up with new uses.

And to be quite honest, that gambling initiative could not have passed without the votes of a significant number of churchgoers. That leads me to think that many churchgoers are not living lives shaped by their faith, but by the general culture. The church system in this country has for many years been producing churchgoers, but not real disciples.

Since that time, I've seen a lot more: surveys documenting that most Christians live pretty much like their non-Christian neighbors, estimates of 20,000 churches that will close their doors in the next decade or two, church leaders who don't live and behave like Christians...the list could go on and on. But things started getting a lot more obvious to me after that election.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

A Basic Question

I've been participating in some discussion on Steve Sensenig's blog, Theological Musings. and Steve paid me what I guess is the blogger's ultimate compliment: he took my comment and made it into a guest post in its own right. While I don't know that I should put the whole discussion here, I am putting up the new post here on my own blog. So here goes:

Looking back at this whole discussion, I come back to this basic question–What is Christianity? Is it
(a) a set of activities in a sacred place on Sunday morning, with a list of tenets to be subscribed to as a condition of participation, coupled with rules for behavior, enforced by the official leadership


(b) a way of living, every day, 24/7, in relationship with Jesus Himself, and with others who also are in relationship with Him.

Going through the words of Jesus Himself in the Gospels, I cannot find anything that leads to (a); in fact, he often rebuked the leaders of the (a) system of the day. I grew up in churches, have been in churches all my life, and my conclusion now is that in most situations, the more of (a) you have, the less you have of (b); in fact, (a) tends to replace and eliminate (b)!

How did “Abide in me” come to mean “Be at the church building every time the doors are open”?

If you want to improve your relationship with someone, say your wife, do you go off to an auditorium and sit while someone who claims to know her better than you do lectures for half an hour? Or would the time be better spent going somewhere alone with your wife and conversing with her for half an hour? Which really builds the relationship with her?

I’m afraid most humans are too lazy for their own good. We’d rather have a list of rules to keep than try to walk in the Spirit. We want a doctrinal statement to assent to rather than trying to learn to hear His voice ourselves. The Hebrews started it at Mt. Sinai–they wanted Moses to hear God for them.

And for those who would say “It’s some of each, both (a) and (b)” my question is How can it be both, when (a) eliminates (b)? I think, and I suspect [frequent commenter] ded would agree (based on what he’s written here), that they are two different things, coming from two different sources. If God meant it to be a symbiosis, it would be a stable symbiosis, not constantly drifting in one direction.

To look at it another way: What has been the “fruit” of (a) in this country? Do we have a vibrant church that is transforming its culture? Are non-believers coming to Christ in droves? Are believers “turning the world upside down”?

Or is the picture more like this: “Our bookshelves are full of Christian books and videos. We have churches on every major street, more staff workers than ever before, large Sunday school departments, cell systems, mega- and meta-church seminars. We have Christian bumper stickers, political action groups, huge parachurch ministries–and in the midst of it all, we have lost every major city in North America.” Back in 1999, Wolfgang Simson included that quote from Ted Haggard in his book “Houses that Change the World”.

Maybe we do need to lay aside everything that’s been written since and go back to the New Testament for our original instructions.