The news that the United States government is cracking down on online poker gives United Methodists an opportunity to recall our historic opposition to gambling.
Gambling is a menace to society, deadly to the best interests of moral, social, economic, and spiritual life, and destructive of good government. As an act of faith and concern, Christians should abstain from gambling and should strive to minister to those victimized by the practice.
Where gambling has become addictive, the Church will encourage such individuals to receive therapeutic assistance so that the individual’s energies may be redirected into positive and constructive ends.
The Church should promote standards and personal lifestyles that would make unnecessary and undesirable the resort to commercial gambling—including public lotteries—as a recreation, as an escape, or as a means of producing public revenue or funds for support of charities or government.
As is so often the case, the Social Principles assert rather than argue, and therefore do not provide us with much in the way of theological grounding for the church’s position.
We might conclude from The General Rules that gambling falls in that category of “diversions” which cannot be done to the glory of God, but the rules do not mention gambling by name.
John Wesley in his sermon “The Use of Money” mentions in passing the taking of money from another via gambling as harming your neighbor and therefore a violation of Christ’s great commandment. He also would single out casinos as places that entice men and women to many kinds of sins. As such, no Christian who cares for the souls of those who visit such establishments should be in that line of business.
In both instances, Wesley characterizes gambling as doing harm to your neighbor.
To gamble itself, we might argue, is dangerous to the Christian because it encourages the love of money and the putting to chance resources which might better be used to care for one’s family or others in need of support. Hanging out in casinos, which often trade on their reputation as houses of sin, certainly is putting ourselves in the cross hairs of evil.
And yet, many Christians – many United Methodists – likely consider gambling at worst a harmless recreational activity that some people unfortunately overindulge in. Our Wesleyan tradition and our understanding of Scripture do not support such an attitude.
How, then, should United Methodists talk about this? What should we do in our congregations? Do we believe still that salvation is at stake in this discussion? Or do we cling to our words about gambling out of habit?