Number Fifty-One

Tealiberasophoterianistic Perspectives

Gambling, Politics and Theology

with 11 comments

By Joey Phillips 

I have gotten into a couple semi-debates recently regarding gambling. I wouldn’t call them real arguments because I haven’t firmed up my understanding of the issues, and hence don’t have a fully formed opinion/conviction regarding gambling. There are several different aspects of this discussion, and I can’t tackle them all on one post (plus, there are a couple of red herrings that folks try and throw out there that I want to avoid). So let me say a couple things up front.

  1. Poker is gambling. Many people try and argue that it is not really gambling because it is a game of skill, not chance primarily. I’m going to ignore that silly argument, since it is akin to saying that Golf is not a sport because you don’t have teammates. Poker fits every definition of gambling that has ever been put in a dictionary. I know because I checked every single dictionary in the world.
  2.  Just because something (like, say…investing) involves risk, it doesn’t make that thing gambling. Putting something valuable at stake (risk) is an aspect of gambling, but it’s not the only thing that makes something gambling.

I am just going to define gambling, real quick so that it diffuses some of the arguments Alex will try to bring up later…and I am going to post links to a series of blog posts by Phil Johnson on the topic, since he dealt with most of these issues and I am borrowing his specific definition of gambling.

To gamble is to wager on a contest or play in a game of chance for stakes. When you gamble, you are risking something valuable on the outcome of something that involves chance, uncertainty, or hazard, for the possibility of winning something somebody else has put up as a stake. So there are four elements of gambling. 1) Something valuable is put at risk. 2) Something belonging to someone else is put up as a prize. 3) An element of chance is involved in the outcome. 4) No new wealth is created in the process.

Ok so now that we have gotten that out of the way, I have two questions I want to ask and then talk about:

Is gambling immoral?

Should it be illegal?

I think the question of the morality, or immorality, of gambling is separate from the question of whether it should be legal. Plenty of things are immoral that are not illegal and vice versa. Let’s start with some arguments for why gambling should be considered immoral.

  1. Gambling is addictive – This is a common aspect of gambling that is brought up to argue both that it is immoral and that it should be illegal. Similar to arguments about smoking, the idea is that any activity that is addicting, and potentially dangerous (physically in the case of smoking, and monetarily/emotionally in the case of gambling) has to be immoral.
  2. Gambling violates a number of biblical principles – see the links at the end of this article for Phil Johnson’s extensive treatment of this issue. I will be talking about this in a minute, and it will help if you have read at least a couple of those articles to become familiar with his arguments.
  3.  Where there is gambling, other vices abound – It is argued that crime rate rises wherever gambling is legalized, therefore it must be immoral.

So those are the main arguments. I would argue that gambling can be very immoral. I don’t think many people would argue with that. Someone could gamble selfishly, foolishly, lazily, or cruelly. Someone could play football all of those ways too. The question is in regards to its inherent nature. Is gambling inherently immoral, like adultery or murder or covetousness?

I don’t think the addiction argument works for determining the inherent sinfulness, or immorality of gambling simply because it is not universally addictive. It is estimated that 2 to 5 percent of people who gamble socially can be considered “addicted.” (See for an article on this). While this is a lot of people…millions in the US…it clearly isn’t addictive for everyone. In other words, being addictive is not an inherent aspect of gambling. I also think the guilt by association argument is weak. It is clearly built on a logical fallacy, and there are any number of reasons why crime rate is higher in the same areas you find gambling. (I haven’t actually seen a study that proves this, but I believe it’s true, simply because gambling is legal in places like, oh, SIN CITY.)

The strongest argument that gambling is inherently immoral comes from argument that it violates biblical principles. Is gambling, by definition, covetous? Is gambling, by definition, a lack of charity? Etc. I have read Phil Johnson’s arguments and find them very compelling. Enough so, that I would say that gambling is sin the vast majority of the time. I still am not convinced that it is inherently sinful though, for a couple of reasons.

First, each principle that is typically violated in gambling doesn’t have to be. Trying to win your neighbors money in a game of chance is usually going to be covetous. But $2 over the course of a night? Can you play a game of poker and your motives be purely to have fun, fellowship, and entertainment? I think so. I think the amount of money you are playing for probably reveals what is going on in your heart. If the game can only by fun if the payoff is large then it’s likely you are coveting your neighbor’s possessions, or the thrill of the risk involved is important enough to you that taking a portion of your neighbor’s income to feed that rush is no big deal. Gambling is typically trying to win money without working for it. For most people, this is why it is fun…the possibility of quick, unearned cash. But again, it doesn’t have to be. Again, if poker is only fun when the stakes are high then laziness and trying to get money without working for it is probably the motive. If money is simply what is being used so people will play for real, and the payoff is not large…then it is possible for motives to be pure. The larger the amount of money involved, the more difficult to argue that biblical principles are not being violated.

So in sum, I would argue that gambling is not inherently immoral, it is just a tool that easily lends itself to sin, so a lot of wisdom is needed in its use.  This post is long enough…I’ll wait on talking about the argument regarding legality till next time.

Links to Phil Johnson’s posts:


Written by Jake Phillips

June 17, 2011 at 1:55 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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11 Responses

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  1. Excellent. Can’t wait to see the legality post and then Alex’s reply.

    Jake Phillips

    June 17, 2011 at 1:56 pm

  2. So, you didn’t address the legal question…

    Jesse P.

    June 17, 2011 at 5:32 pm

  3. I was going to, but then it was too long so I will post part 2 on the legality issue Monday.


    June 17, 2011 at 5:43 pm

  4. Well, Joey here is my first thoughts. Much more to come as I think about it.

    1. Poker is not gambling. Poker is often associated with gambling. Poker is a game of skill. Gambling adds a different element to poker that is often associated with fun just like, some would argue, gambling makes golf, or any other sport, more fun. For example, many amateur golfers like to bet a certain dollar amount on each hole. Gambling often increases the level of competition. Conversely, a large amount of poker if not a majority of poker is played for free and is not associated with gambling in any way. Everyday, people play poker on free poker sites, on their cell phones and mobile devices, and at friendly social home games.
    2. The statement “No new wealth is created in the process” is not entirely correct about poker. While I know this is not important to your argument it could be misleading to those not familiar with economics and/or poker. At this point, I would defend poker at a professional level at any stakes. Casinos or poker rooms facilitate that type of poker. They in fact do create wealth, jobs and are beneficial to an economy. Just so that is clear.

    I would argue that gambling cannot be very immoral just like something amoral like driving or eating cannot be immoral. One can be sinful while doing those things but the act itself is not immoral. Someone could gamble selfishly, foolishly, lazily, or cruelly but the act itself is not those things. On the day of judgment, I doubt God will say “you sinned because you played poker lazily that one time but when you were driving that other time and you were lazy and decided to not stop at that stop sign, its ok. You could be helping a elderly women across the street and be sinning.

    Clear the addictive argument is weak and the guilt by association is also very weak. Las Vegas has a close to average or lower than average crime-rate in the areas of total violent crime, murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny-theft, or motor vehicle theft when compared to other cities of the same size. There are some common misconceptions that perpetuate the association with crime and poker that can be discussed at another time but since we agree on this point it doesn’t seem relevant.

    In my experience, poker has elements that can and do cause Christians to stumble and give into temptations to covet, to be greedy, and to have bad attitudes among other things. (On a quick side note, poker is often grueling work and good professional poker players are often noted for their strong work ethic.) This is really a silly argument. Everything in life presents temptations. Are we to stay in our rooms and refuse to go anywhere or do anything because we are afraid of what might cause us to sin? Of course not. If our friends and family like to play sports, then we should also play sports and help our friends walk through any temptations like anger or laziness that we witness and encourage them in love and in kindness. If our friends are involved in business then we should be on the look out for the many temptations that arise from that area of life and build one another up. I would argue that if your friends and family participate in the amoral sport of poker, barring a strong preference against fellowship and fun, then you should also participate in that event as well with as much wisdom as you can muster.

    I would agree with you Joey that gambling is not inherently immoral and that it is a tool that lends itself to sin just like playing sports, going into and being involved with business, going to church, eating family dinners together or any other event. I do understand why you would add easier to that statement. Is it easy like pretty much everything is easy? Or do you argue that it is easier? I do disagree that is a toot that lends itself to sin more easily that all the other events I mentioned. I also agree that with everything wisdom is needed.

    Alex Couch

    June 17, 2011 at 5:48 pm

  5. Alex,

    I will get into the issue of crime in my next post in more detail, so I’ll leave that alone for now.

    You said poker is not gambling. If by that you mean, poker can be played in such a way that gambling does not take place…then you are right. Based on the definition of gambling, if there are no stakes, then gambling isn’t taking place. So poker played for stakes is gambling, and poker played with no stakes involved is not gambling. Poker played without any stake involved is the same as spades, or any other game. That’s simply not what I was talking about.

    As far as the “no new wealth created” part…I am also referring to the game of poker itself…not the surrounding industry. In a cash poker game, money simply trades hands. Once you get to the point that there is TV and sponsorship money involved in the prize, and not just other players money…that changes that aspect.

    “I would argue that gambling cannot be very immoral just like something amoral like driving or eating cannot be immoral. One can be sinful while doing those things but the act itself is not immoral.”

    I disagree just because I think that act of driving CAN be immoral. The act of driving while drunk is itself immoral because it violates biblical principles…regardless of the conscious heart motives of the person involved. It doesn’t matter if my motive for driving drunk is to get home to my wife because I love her and want to spend time with her…that motive is great, but the act itself is sin. It is foolhardy, and tests God, and is reckless stewardship my possession.

    In the same way, if I have $1000.00 to my name and I enter a cash game for $100 because I want to fellowship with my family and friends and have a fun evening…I am being foolish, testing God, and showing reckless stewardship of my possessions…playing poker is sinful in that instance.

    Your rebuttal:

    Joey you are missing the key distinction here: In both cases the act of driving, or of playing poker wasn’t the actual sin! It was the foolishness, the recklessness…those were the sins!

    My response: That’s a distinction without a difference. Whether driving drunk, or playing poker for too high a stake…the act themselves are sinful regardless of conscious motive. So you agree and I agree that gambling isn’t inherently sinful, like drinking isn’t sinful…but I think that playing poker is like taking a drink of alcohol…nothing wrong with it, in moderation, and with wisdom being actively exercised it can be a good thing. But it naturally leads to excess and sin without moderation. As opposed to family meetings, which are inherently good (and can be twisted to be bad) going into business (which is inherently good and can be twisted to be bad).


    June 17, 2011 at 6:52 pm

  6. Whatsoever you do, do all to the glory of God.

    Jason Karroll

    June 17, 2011 at 6:56 pm

  7. indeed


    June 17, 2011 at 7:32 pm

  8. How do you guys feel 1 Thess. 5:22 relates and informs this discussion?

    Jesse P.

    June 17, 2011 at 8:42 pm

    • Jesse,

      I think it applies only if poker is evil. It is highly unlikely that Paul was talking about “appearance” that is not reflective of reality. In other words, Paul was not saying “abstain from EVEN the appearance of evil, even if its not actually evil.” In this case “evil” would be unreality, but Paul would still be encouraging us to abstain from it, whatever “it” happens to be. But he wasn’t saying this. He was saying to abstain from every form of evil. So if poker is evil, then yes, we should abstain from it.

      Jake Phillips

      June 17, 2011 at 8:51 pm

  9. Here’s a hypothetical: if a Christian partakes in gambling, although it might not be a vice for him, what if he is playing with another person for whom it is a vice? Does that make it wrong for him to play?

    Jesse P.

    June 18, 2011 at 2:57 am

  10. Thank you, Joey.


    June 20, 2011 at 3:10 am

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