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Gambling and Alcohol – A Biblical Perspective

This article by Dr. A. J. Higgins M.D. (New Jersey, USA) tackles two epidemics of 21st Century western culture – gambling and alcohol – and examines them from a Biblical perspective.

Any student of American history quickly recognises the name of Eliot Ness and his “Untouchables”, who enforced prohibition in Chicago during the 1930’s. Alcohol and gambling, both illegal at the time, were viewed as moral evils, responsible for crime, and recognised for their destructive influence on family, society and individuals. The “noble experiment” of prohibition ended, mostly due to the fact that it could not be enforced. Gambling continued for decades as a covert activity, carried on mostly by organised crime and by legalised race tracks.

Legalised gambling became a reality in the 20th century, joining alcohol as a government-sanctioned activity. Gambling and grog – once viewed as vices – now are virtues for nearly every western nation, frequently adding to the coffers of governments. While the initial claims that these tax windfalls would aid worthy causes, no one stopped to debate the basic morality of these activities. Government has adopted the view that it cannot legislate morals. Everyone acknowledges the destructive effects of alcohol, and the addictive nature of both alcohol and gambling. So individuals are cautioned to exercise moderation, and to seek help if they have a “problem”. Everyone rushes off to buy the latest lottery ticket in hopes of a life-changing jackpot, confident that they are always acting in moderation. Documentaries have shown how life-changing a lottery win can be – but not in a positive manner.

Likewise, the acceptability of alcohol has become so normalised that it might well be considered the national drink. What should the Christian’s view on these be?

Alcohol

Many are quick to point out that the Scriptures do not prohibit the use of alcohol. There are those who characterise an abstainer from alcohol as a “weak brother” for whom they are willing to sacrifice their “liberty” to drink, so as not to offend (Rom 14; 1 Cor 8). Of course, there are others who do not even bother to sacrifice this “liberty”. Are we being a bit over-the-top by abstaining from a glass of wine when out for dinner, from popping the cork on a bottle of champagne to celebrate a special occasion, or from enjoying that six-pack after a hard week at work? Is social drinking really all that evil? Is it permissible to enjoy alcohol in moderation?

Much could be written about the medical and social results of alcoholism; the number of traffic fatalities, murders and other crimes linked with alcohol. These, however, are all linked with alcohol in excess, and hardly enter into the issue of social drinking. No one ever engages in social drinking with the intention of becoming an alcoholic – but it does happen!

Our examination of the question begins in the Old Testament. Throughout the Old Testament, it is the excess of wine which is being condemned, and not wine itself. In a culture where water was not always safe, wine was an acceptable drink. There are abundant learned treatises available to you which discuss the different words for wine and strong drink referred to in Scripture and their alcohol content and potential to cause drunkenness. Suffice it to say that in sufficient quantity, all had the desired (or undesirable) effect.

In the New Testament, the Lord Jesus turned water into wine (John 2). This serves as sufficient justification for many to imbibe. We are reminded, also, that the Lord Jesus spoke of not drinking of the fruit of the vine until the Kingdom of God should come, thus implying there would be wine in the coming millennial kingdom.

Against this is the warning of Ephesians 5:18 to “be not drunk with wine”, which is set over against being filled or under the control of the Spirit of God. Those who proclaim their liberty to enjoy social drinking are quick to point out that it is the issue of being drunk which is addressed here and not social drinking. Paul also had to urge Timothy to take “a little wine” for its medicinal value. That he had to urge Timothy might suggest that, either Timothy was very sensitive and scrupulous, or that, the dangers of alcohol being recognised, Timothy chose to avoid any temptation to indulge. Proverbs 23 provides one of the most graphic pictures of drunkenness in literature, as well as an insight into its addictive effects (vs 29-35). Warnings against alcohol and its potential dangers are peppered throughout the wise counsels of Solomon in Proverbs. The Scriptures are fully cognisant of the social, medical, and physical effects of alcohol.

There is also the special case of the man or woman who wanted to please God. Numbers 6 tells of the Nazarite who willingly abstained, not only from alcohol, but from even the grapes, lest the taste of the one lead to a desire for the other. Does this have any relevance to the question we are answering? Is it not teaching that the man or woman who wants to please God will not practice “minimal” Christianity, but will sacrifice and avoid anything which might affect usefulness for God?

What conclusions can we draw from this seeming divergence of example and counsel? Is, then, social drinking a liberty which believers can enjoy? Are those who avoid alcohol among the weak and overly-scrupulous? How can you avoid the availability and temptation of social drinking when every business meeting, every non-Christian wedding or special event to which you are invited, and every interaction at a social function is lubricated with alcohol? It is ubiquitous and unavoidable in our society today.

“First mentions” in Scripture are incredibly insightful. The first mention of wine is, tragically, in Genesis 8 and linked with Noah. Few would question Noah’s spirituality and moral strength. He had stood for centuries as a witness to the living God. He had proved faithful amidst an entire world which had departed from God, “eating and drinking” (Luke 17:26-27). After the flood, he planted a vineyard and became drunk. If nothing else, the Spirit of God is sending out a warning at the very outset of human history concerning the dangers of alcohol. It is significant that there was, linked with his drunkenness, a loosening of moral restraints; alcohol and immorality frequently travel together.

The wine which was drunk in Old Testament times was a very diluted wine mixed with water. Its alcohol content was likely 0.5% as compared to the wines available today which are 10-15%. Alcohol sold today is the result of distillation, a process which greatly increases the alcohol content of whiskey and other drinks. This process was not well known nor used until the 12th or 13th century. So it was obviously not known to the Hebrews of 1,000BC. What the Hebrews drank bears no resemblance to modern day wine and alcohol.

Water was mixed with wine, probably two parts water to one part wine, to make the water safer to drink. Today, we have abundant safe options for fluids, and do not need wine to make our beverages safe. The “moderation only” argument, however, reminds us that we can overeat and become gluttons just as easily as we can over-drink and become drunk. This shows that we need moderation in all areas of life. Of course, what is not emphasised is that you need food to live; you do not need alcohol to live.

This is not an appeal for us to resurrect the American Temperance Union or the Anti-saloon League of the 19th century. It is a reminder of the danger inherent in social drinking. Paul exhorted the believers in Romans 13 to “make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof” (v14). In other words, “Don’t play with fire!” Social drinking carries with it the risk of going beyond the first drink. There are individuals who are genetically and biochemically prone to addiction. In a sense, they cannot avoid addiction if they begin drinking. The only choice that is theirs is to avoid the first drink.

Along with the reminder to avoid providing for our flesh, we are exhorted to holiness of life (1 Peter 1:15; 2 Cor 7:1). Does the practice of social drinking tend toward holiness?

There is also the danger of the example being set for other believers. There are believers among us who have been saved out of a life of alcoholism. The principle of 1 Corinthians 8 and Romans 14 is that I must always consider the example I am setting for others, and the potential damage I can do to another believer. The social drinking of one believer may be the open door for another believer to return to alcoholism.

It may be awkward drinking your Pepsi or your orange juice at the business meeting when others are guzzling down their wine or martinis. You may feel as though everyone is looking at you when you do not drink the champagne at your relative’s wedding reception. It would be much easier to conform to society’s behaviour and to fit in with them. Romans 12:1-2 would have some bearing on that attitude. Is my desire to be as much like my neighbour as I can be, without crossing some imaginary line I have established in my mind, or is it being as different as the Word of God bids me be?

I cannot use the diluted wine of Biblical times to justify my social drinking. I cannot appeal to my “liberty” as the basis for drinking. Liberty is the freedom to do the will of God, not to fulfil my own desires. I am confronted with the question of which is more pleasing to God – being like society, or seeking to live a life which avoids not only sin, but every provision for sin.

Gambling

Most would think that the issue of gambling hardly needs to be addressed among believers. But modern media, office lotteries, online gambling and “innocent” betting pools can become snares for some. How do you respond when they sell raffle tickets at work or in the neighbourhood to help cover the medical expenses of someone’s daughter with leukaemia? How do you handle sweepstakes tickets for which you pay nothing but merely answer a question or two? What of the new craze of Fantasy Sports League gambling?

The basic appeal in every form of gambling is an appeal to covetousness. There is little question that covetousness in every form is condemned in Scripture. Along with its place as the last of the commandments in Exodus 20, Romans 13:9 repeats the warning in the New Testament. It is not to be “once named” among the believers (Eph 5:3) and is equated to idolatry (Col 3:5). Numerous New Testament Scriptures can be cited with which the reader is already familiar.

Couple that with the fact that the first sin which plagued Israel on entering the land was the covetousness of Achan (Josh 7); and the first act of discipline in the newly formed assembly in Jerusalem involved the covetousness of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5). While covetousness can embrace far more than money, as seen in what it is linked to in the mention in Exodus 20, the appeal to greed and materialism is certainly a major problem in our western world.

We are not addressing issues such as awards, bonuses, and financial incentives to bank with this financial firm or another. What is being addressed is the issue of gambling for gain which is motivated by covetousness. Its evil can be traced in many different ways.

Is it ethical to use another’s money to try and gain riches, understanding that it is far more likely that I will lose what is another’s? All that we have is really another’s and not ours (Luke 16:12). If, as I profess, all that I am and have belong to the Lord Jesus, how can I take what is His and risk losing it with a view to profiting myself? Some, without a blush, claim to do so in order that they might have more to give to the Lord. But God is not so impoverished that He requires me to increase His wealth by gambling His money.

Also, for every individual who wins at gambling, many people must lose. Winnings are only possible if enough people lose their money in return. The gambling industry exists to make a profit. Common sense says that so many people must lose money, that the industry gains money as well as the winner of the lottery or bet. Thus, gambling “enables” thousands, and at times millions, of people to lose money; some lose heavily and many lose repeatedly.

Gambling is also an addiction which enslaves many people. The craving to win, the urge to try, just one more time, to reach the impossible dream which keeps replaying in their minds – all of these impel the gambling addict to continue the self-destructive behaviour. Tragically, this behaviour can also destroy families, careers, and lives.

When we look at the cross, we not only see One Who gave everything for others, we witness soldiers at the foot of the cross gambling. Someone hit the “jackpot” that day and went home with a seamless robe! It was not a big lottery win, but it was gambling.

How then do you respond to the less blatant and more appealing forms of gambling? How do you respond when it is a lottery in the office to benefit a sick fellow-worker; when it is a contest in town to help pay for medical bills of a neighbour? You certainly would not want to appear callous and indifferent to needs and suffering!

The solution in these cases is quite simple: you give the required amount and do not take the lottery ticket or chance. You have contributed your money and done so with a far more altruistic motivation. But all other forms in which the temptation to gamble presents itself to you require no wisdom or finesse. We do not covet and thus do not gamble.

Why have we cooperated with society in its shifting mental attitude toward what were once conceived of as vices? Is it our tendency to want to fit in, and not appear judgmental? God’s standards never change; society’s standards do.

(Used with permission from Truth and Tidings magazine)