I was brought up to believe that Christians should never participate in a raffle – raffles are a form of gambling and therefore should be avoided. As a result for years I never bought a raffle ticket – instead I would often make a donation to the good cause involved. As a minister I did not allow raffles on church premises, on the grounds that as Christians we do not believe in games of chance. In the words of the 1936 Methodist ‘Declaration on Gambling’, “belief in luck cannot be reconciled with faith in God”. Gambling undermines the “binding ties of human fellowship”. It represents the desire for gain at another’s loss, and is in opposition to the Christian life of self-sacrifice.
But in the last few years I have begun to change my mind. I still believe that gambling is wrong. It is wrong not least because of the harm it causes. It is estimated that in the Britain there are a third of a million problem gamblers, for whom gambling compromises their lives, relationships, ability to hold down a job, and even health. In addition, there are a further million who are ‘at risk’ of becoming problem gamblers.
But are raffles a form of gambling? Until I began to write this blog, I would have said no. However, to my surprise I have discovered that technically raffles are ‘a gambling competition’ and that English law classifies raffles as ‘non-commercial lotteries’. Indeed, there are legal restrictions to raffles: for instance, the amounts deducted from the proceeds of the lottery in respect of (a) the cost of prizes, and (b) the costs incurred in organising the lottery must not exceed £500 and £100 respectively.
Some Christians continue to feel strongly that raffles are a form of gambling, and therefore are to be condemned. According to one American web-site, raffles involve covetousness, greed, love of money, unneighbourly behaviour, and are even a form of lust!
To my mind there is a real distinction between what ‘hard’ forms of gambling and raffles. First and foremost raffles are about giving to a good cause, and involve relatively small sums of money. The prizes are always limited. Furthermore, there is a very real difference between ‘lotteries’, which some people call a form of ‘soft’ gambling, and raffles. Lotteries tend to have much bigger prizes, and although good causes may benefit, people do not enter the lottery primarily to help a good cause, but rather they want to win something – and so they often lay out a good deal of money. I shall never forget talking to a London taxi driver about the lottery, and he told me that rather than invest in a pension he thought it wiser to put money every week on the lottery in the hope of winning the jackpot – what utter nonsense!
If raffles may technically be a form of gambling, the reality is that the sums of money are so relatively trivial that nobody is ‘harmed’ in the process. Typically at a charity event raffles raise around £300 a time, with most people spending no more than £5 a strip. For charities there is no doubt that such money does make a difference, and so I would argue raffles can be a good thing and are even to be encouraged.
However, within the context of a local church, I am less inclined to favour raffles. As Christians we have a God-given responsibility to support the work of the church through ‘proportionate giving’. Furthermore, experience shows that ‘fundraising activities’ of all kinds are always less effective than direct-giving.
So in conclusion: gambling is definitely to be condemned – and not least because all too often it is the poor who suffer. Raffles, however, I see in a different light. I find it significant that the Methodist Church in Britain, which has always been strongly opposed to gambling, allows raffles on church premises provided they are not ‘a substantial inducement’ for a person to attend an event. Indeed, its 1992 statement on gambling the Methodist Church said, it is important “to heed the experience of our tradition in our concern for the serious evils of gambling; but also to avoid the heavy-footed pursuit of the trivial”. The fact is that there are much bigger ethical issues to focus upon – to focus on raffles is equivalent to getting worked up about the iotas and dots of the Law (see Matt 5.18).