For many years there was an anti-gambling stigma in the United States, but in recent years that has fallen away, and sports betting has become extremely popular. With the proliferation of legal online gambling sites and apps, people can bet on almost any sporting event held anywhere in the world from almost anywhere in the world. Betting on sporting events means that a person risks some money in the hopes of getting a greater return. If the only factor were picking the winners or losers, there would not be a lot of chance involved. More often than not, the better team wins, and often the better team is evident. To make things more competitive, bets are often placed on how large the margin of victory will be. This introduces an additional dimension of the unknown and makes winning the bet more challenging.
When considering sports betting, we need to consider three things: Sovereignty, Stewardship, and Society.
Sovereignty: Most gambling has an element of chance. Some gambling, like the lottery, is pure chance. Other games require more skill. Sports betting is somewhere in the middle as the serious gambler will have carefully analyzed both teams and have more than an educated guess about who will most likely win. However, those who gamble often do not recognize that God is in ultimate control. He is sovereign over everything. They often assume that everything is the result of blind chance or a combination of chance and cause and effect within a closed system. They do not always recognize that God maintains final control and we do not know what purposes He may have in the outcome of a sporting event. Without knowing His purposes, it seems foolish to bet on the outcome.
Likewise, the one who hopes to win by gambling may often lack faith in God’s ability to provide financially. This may not be true in every case, but before a Christian places a bet of any kind, he should carefully evaluate what that activity reveals about his own belief in the sovereignty of God.
Stewardship: The main reason people bet on sports (or anything else) is to make quick money and to get something for nothing. However, God has given His approval to another means of making money, and that means is work. Betting often kills the work ethic because it offers the possibility of something for nothing.
Of course, if a person starts a business, it will require the risk of capital. The business may fail, and the owner may lose it all. Likewise, investment in the stock market involves risk. The difference is that investment in companies is encouraging development of goods and services. It is not an attempt to get something for nothing. If a person invests money in a stock after careful investigation of the company and the goods or services it provides, while it will put money at risk, it is not gambling. If another person “plays the market” by simply throwing money at stocks based on tips or hunches, then that is indeed another form of gambling. A professional sports franchise owner usually risks a tremendous amount of money to buy the team and then pay the players and coaches and fund all the other expenses in hopes of making a profit and building a franchise that increases in value. Once again, this involves risk, but it is a risk within the framework that God has established as an approved means of increasing wealth.
Of course, the issue of stewardship applies to all spending habits. Christians do not own anything, but they have been given resources to steward (manage). Before placing a bet, a Christian should ask, “Since this is God’s money that He has given to me to use for His kingdom, is this good money management?” And “What if I lose?” (and sooner or later everyone will lose!).
Society: Recent estimates are that 10 million people in the United States are addicted to some form of gambling (North American Foundation for Gambling Addiction, Statistics of Gambling Addiction, 2016). When Christians participate in sports betting, they are supporting something that hurts many individuals and families. One must consider the effects that sports betting has on society as a whole, too. Participation in any kind of legalized gambling is likely to hurt those who are struggling financially and who bet more than they can afford to lose. Furthermore, legalized gambling recruits new gamblers from non-gamblers, and illegal betting recruits from those who already indulge in legal gambling. Legal gambling often leads to illegal gambling, which can easily lead to complete ruin. Illegal gambling allows gamblers to bet on credit with money they don’t have, which can lead to debt—and even worse for gamblers to don’t pay their debts on time.
When a person works and creates goods or services to offer on the open market, both the buyer and the seller profit from it. In a gambling transaction, one person wins, getting something for nothing, and another party simply gets nothing for the money he or she put up. The transaction benefits one party and is a detriment to the other and to society at large.
In conclusion, there is no Scripture passage that forbids sports betting. However, the principles mentioned above would seem to call the practice into question. While a given individual may be able to bet on sports or other things without any noticeable harm, the net effect of gambling on society is negative. Furthermore, the effect on the sporting events themselves can be negative as athletes and officials can be pressured to throw games, shave points, and make illegitimate calls for the purpose of unfairly determining the outcome.
In dealing with such “gray areas,” the apostle Paul gives inspired counsel in response to people who focus on what is spiritually “legal” for them to do:
“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive (1 Corinthians 10:23).
“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but I will not be mastered by anything (1 Corinthians 6:12).
In the absence of any absolute prohibitions against gambling in all forms, answers to these questions are all-important:
1. Is it beneficial? It may benefit those who win, but no one wins all the time, and it is certainly detrimental to those who lose.
2. Is it constructive? This is similar to asking if it is beneficial. Will it make one a more devoted and effective disciple of Christ?
3. Will it become a master? Christ is the Christian’s Master, but gambling can easily become a rival master—a slave master—for the one who becomes addicted to it. Even if the individual Christian will not become addicted, he or she is supporting an industry that does create bondage for many.
While we cannot say with absolute biblical authority that a Christian should never place a bet on a sporting event, we would caution against it in the strongest way possible.