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Perhaps you’ve seen the bumper sticker that reads, “Don’t steal—the government hates competition!”  Now, even though I’m not an enormous fan of taxes (I don’t generally go looking for ways to pay more than required), we understand that it is biblically right to pay our taxes.  When Jesus commanded that we render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s, the image of Caesar on the coin meant that it belonged to Caesar; if he wanted his coin back, let him have it.[1]  When Paul commanded us to obey human governments—including paying taxes—recognizing that their authority is ultimately given by God, he was referring to the pagan Roman government that would eventually put him to death, not some theoretical government whose every policy was goodness and light.

Unfortunately, though, many current governments are in the habit of stealing from the citizens they are supposed to protect.  A rapidly growing number of states count on lotteries and casinos to help fund significant parts of their budgets.  And as David Blankenhorn has written in a recent report, New York’s Promise: Why Supporting Casinos Is a Regressive Policy Unworthy of a Great State, state-sponsored gambling counts on citizens (largely those of lower economic status) losing vast amounts of money in order to enrich state governments and their partners.  Blankenhorn argues specifically against the upcoming referendum that would change New York’s state constitution to legalize casino gambling, but the rest of us would do well to listen in.

Blankenhorn argues that the very idea of government being funded by gambling goes against the state’s mandate to secure its people’s wellbeing.  He also notes that in years past the state of New York has come to that same conclusion:

In 1819, a Select Committee on Lotteries established by the New York legislature issued its report.  It was scathing.  Lotteries, the committee argued, are “indefensible upon principle.”  Why?  Because lotteries “make government dependent for its support, not on the intelligence, but on the vices of the people.”  The committee concluded “that the raising of money by means of public lotteries is inefficacious, insecure, impolitic and unjust; that it is repugnant to the industrious habits and moral sentiments of the people; that it is destructive to their principles, their prosperity and their happiness, and equally injurious to the interests and reputation of the state” (p. 57).

Unlike government involvement in building infrastructure that makes travel and trade possible, state-sponsored gambling preys on people and devours resources that might otherwise be put to use in improving the state:

Building the Erie Canal meant New York borrowed money from people of modest means and paid them back with 6 percent interest.  Sponsoring casinos means the state takes money from people of modest means and never pays them back (p. 61).

Contrary to those who claim casinos will build the economy (Gov. Andrew Cuomo has bandied about the number $1 billion a great deal), Blankenhorn notes that casinos simply move money about—often from those who are poorer to those who are richer.  In the meantime, even though building casinos will create new jobs (most of them short-term construction jobs),

the larger question is whether these jobs will contribute to economic growth.  Any new economic activity—from selling drugs to loan sharking to XXX movie theaters to regional offices for the Ku Klux Klan—will create jobs.  But research shows that only some of these activities actually contribute to economic growth, and casinos (mainly because they produce nothing of value) are not among them.  Casino gambling does not create wealth; it only follows, devalues, and redirects wealth.  As Gov. Mario Cuomo [the current governor’s father] put it in an interview with the New York Times in 1994, bringing casinos into a state “doesn’t generate wealth, it just redistributes it” (p. 125).

And there is no question that wealth will be redistributed.  Modern slot machines, the core of casino gambling, are computers mathematically designed to make people lose, but with enough lights, sound effects, and hints that you almost won to convince you to try again.  That’s why casino owners and designers avoid playing:

In 2004 in Reno, Nevada, New York Times reporter Gary Rivlin asked a prominent slot machine designer at International Game Technology if he ever put any of his own money into the machines he designed: The man “acted as if I insulted him.  ‘Slots are for losers,’ he spat.’ (p. 66).

As Blankenhill puts it, each machine is designed by laws of mathematics to ensure that the house wins.

Let’s be clear: There are no exceptions to this rule.  Whether the “game” in question is being “played” by a math genius from MIT or a casually curious chimpanzee, the results do not and cannot vary.  For the steady slot player, it cannot be a question of winning or losing.  The only question—one designers care deeply about as well—is how fast you lose (p. 66-67).

So why does this rise to the level of government policy?  We allow other foolish, expensive, and finally useless pursuits, and proponents of casino building bill it as largely harmless entertainment.  We allow people to overpay for hotels and football games, so why not gambling?  A key difference is that the state officials who are responsible to oversee and regulate casinos are the same ones responsible for promoting them; the state is an active business partner:

People who build, manage, and profit from casinos often suggest that modern casinos are private businesses, no different conceptually from other private businesses.  The implication of this argument is clear.  In a free society, by what right or authority do nosy citizens—or for that matter, interfering politicians—get to tell businesses in the “private sector” what to do or how to do it?

This would be an excellent “leave us alone to run our business” argument if it were true, but it’s not.  Whatever else they may be, casinos are not private businesses.  Unless they are state-owned outright (as is the case, for example, in Kansas), casinos are fully elaborated joint ventures in which government agencies and private actors join forces to create something quite unique.”  (p. 77).

And make no mistake, gambling is big business for states.  State governments get their “take” off the top, before business expenses, and often in addition to normal business taxes and local taxes.  That “take” runs from 8 percent in Nevada to over 50 percent in Pennsylvania (p. 78).

It all adds up to a lot of money.  Have you ever wondered why politicians who like to give speeches about “jobs” and “economic growth” often seem more interested in licensing casinos than in licensing, say, tire stores or computer firms?  …The reason…has little to do with “jobs” and absolutely nothing to do with “economic growth,” since a significant body of research suggests that casinos do not contribute to economic growth.  The reason for this special focus on casinos is that Joe’s Tire Store of Tallahassee pays the state of Florida, with whom Joe has no regular contact, a relatively small fraction of its earnings via a tax on the store’s profits, while Bob’s Casino and Resort in Tallahassee pays the state of Florida, with whom Bob is in a full-fledged business partnership, a whopping proportion of the venture’s total revenues. (p. 79).

We had a former governor who spoke honestly about these matters.  His name was Mario Cuomo.  Regarding the state’s sponsorship of gambling, he said: “We do it for the money, but I don’t know anybody who’s excited about it” (p. 107).

But some are excited now.  Governor Andrew Cuomo says legalizing casinos will boost the economy of upstate New York (or possible New York City, depending on which time he speaks).  He’s excited enough that he and allies in legislature have changed the wording on the referendum ballot to read:

The proposed amendment to section 9 of article 1 of the Constitution would allow the Legislature to authorize up to seven casinos in New York State for the legislated purposes of promoting job growth, increasing aid to schools, and permitting local governments to lower property taxes through revenues generated. Shall the amendment be approved?[2]

The change was made secretly and not announced until after it would be too late to challenge the wording.[3]  As of today, the new referendum language is being challenged in court on the grounds that the rewrite was not handled in accordance with New York’s Open Meeting Law, and also because state money has been used to press for acceptance of the measure, which is also illegal.  Time will tell whether the new wording will stand.  In the meantime, the governor and others seem determined to press forward on state-sponsored gambling; perhaps the $3 million in campaign contributions since 2011 have had an effect.[4]

Those of us who do not live in New York have little say in the outcome of next month’s referendum.  However, if a government whose constitution specifically forbids the state to prey on the citizenry through gambling is able to push through such drastic changes, we should not expect any other state’s citizens to be safe from a system that intentionally encourages “gaming” at addictive levels and deprives families of their income.  David Blankenhorn has sounded the alarm in New York with a winsome, well-written essay, well worth the read; it is available in full here.

For more on the social and other costs of casinos, see here.  For the extent of their power and economic influence, see here.

 


[1] And likewise, Jesus meant that what is made in God’s image—our entire selves—belongs to Him; give yourself entirely to His service under Christ’s authority.

[2] Quoted in “Slanted Wording of the State’s Casino Amendment Is Unfair, Needs to Be Changed,” Syracuse Post-Standard, 10 Oct. 2013. Accessed 11 Oct. 2013 at http://www.syracuse.com/opinion/index.ssf/2013/10/new_york_casino_referendum_wording.html.

[3] Michael Gormley, “NYPIRG Joins NY Casino Referendum Opposition,” Saratogian, 10 Oct. 2013. Accessed 11 Oct. 2013 at http://saratogian.com/articles/2013/10/10/news/doc52573df66b306939369719.txt; Post Editorial Board, “Dirty Dealing on Casino Referendum,” New York Post, 11 Oct. 2013. Accessed 11 Oct. 2013 at http://nypost.com/2013/10/11/dirty-dealing-on-casino-referendum/.

[4] Gormley, “NYPIRG Joins NY Casino Referendum Opposition,” http://saratogian.com/articles/2013/10/10/news/doc52573df66b306939369719.txt?viewmode=2

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Last Sunday’s sermon by Pastor Ricky Persons of Bethel Baptist Church was one of the most encouraging and useful I have sat under in some time.  Preaching from Mark 9, he warned us, “Don’t stop short of Jesus!”  You can find audio here.

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In the last couple of weeks I’ve run across two very helpful articles on what can be in many churches a difficult question: What is the role for a pastor’s wife, and how can a church care well for a pastor’s wife?

First, Jonathan Leeman of 9Marks Ministries points out that there is not a specific office of “Pastor’s Wife” created in the New Testament.  A pastor or elder’s wife ought to faithfully use her Spirit-given gifts to serve the church, but that’s because she is a Christian, not because her husband is the pastor or an elder.  Some pastors’ wives are gifted in public teaching and ministry; others are gifted in ways that will be less visible, though no less active.  Her husband ought to love her well and to encourage her in developing the gifts God has given her, and a church will be able to love her well by not comparing her gifts with the gifts that God has given other women, but by serving alongside her as sisters.

Brother Leeman does note that pastors’ and elders’ wives do have “a unique role, just like the wife of every man has a unique role: she is married to him. Every wife including the elder’s wife must learn how to be the helpmate to her husband in all his stations of life.”  As she comforts and encourages her husband, working alongside him, she is indispensible.  That’s true for any faithful Christian life, but in a pastor’s household, the additional weight of responsibility means that “the stakes of the Christian life will become higher, and so it will become that much more practically important that we are both abiding in the gospel.  You might say that being a pastor or elder’s wife doesn’t add any new knobs to the stereo, it just turns up the volume.  But don’t misunderstand: the music is good!”

Meanwhile, Cara Croft, whose husband Brian is pastor at Auburndale Baptist Church in Louisville, has written a post entitled, “Warning! This Blog Has Been Hijacked…by a Pastor’s Wife.”  Sister Croft shares some of the burdens and hardships of pastoral ministry from a wife’s perspective: the pain of watching her husband weighed down by the inevitable cares of ministry in a fallen world, the temptation to lash out when her husband is attacked, the delicate balance of freeing up her husband to minister to the flock and yet also needing him home to shepherd his family, and on top of all of it not being sure to whom she can talk to when life is difficult.  There is encouragement in this post for other pastors’ wives, as well as wisdom for pastors—we need to be mindful of what’s on her mind, even when she doesn’t feel able to say it (or to my shame, even when she feels like she’s already said it and nothing has changed).

Though I’m not currently in a pastoral role, I am deeply grateful to my April for her perseverance in hard places and with strange hours.  There is much joy in ministry, but also much work.  Thank you, Love, for all that you make possible by not giving up on me along the way.  And I’ll be rereading that second article regularly.

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Apropos of my last post on what makes a church, Jonathan Leeman posted an article today at 9Marks, “How T4G Gave Me a Vision for Massive Single-Site, Single-Service Churches.”  Having recently taken part in this year’s Together for the Gospel Conference, Brother Leeman describes the joy and the sense of unity he found as he heard God’s Word preached, prayed, and sung in the company of around 8,000 people.  He says,

We were together because we all wanted the same thing—to see Christ’s glory and fame spread, and to enjoy him together. We all wanted our lives, our families, our work to be about him. Somehow, these 8000 anonymous faces didn’t feel like strangers or enemies, but friends. I felt no desire to compete with them, or prove myself to them, but to embrace them, and be embraced by them.

Honestly, it was like sitting together at the family dinner table.

And now you want half the family to get up from the table, and either walk down the street to another building, or come back in two hours? And you don’t think that will change things?  …

For the first time, I imagined what the church in Jerusalem with its 5000 men (and how many women and children?) must have been like. First, they enjoyed the power of the crowd as the all met together (Acts 2:46a; 5:12; 6:2). Then they separated for fellowship and met in individual houses (2:46b). Power and unity together, followed by a more intimate fellowship when apart.…It’s not a bad formula. Throw some elders into those individual house meetings and you got pastoral oversight as well.

Leeman came away with a new appreciation for how unity is possible even in a large group—but not when that same group is split into smaller groups meeting at different places and times.  As he puts it,

It’s no good to say, as some do, “Once your church grows beyond 1000, you might as well split into two services or two sites. What’s the difference?” The difference is that people live in bodies. And bodies together is a different thing than bodies separate. Just ask your spouse or kids. How well can you build a marriage or raise your kids over Skype?

Like Leeman, I am far more familiar with smaller churches where it’s possible to know everybody, at least to some extent.  However, Brother Leeman’s observations remind us that there can be much good when many brothers and sisters gather in one place to hear from and offer worship to our God when that gathering is done in a way that pays attention to biblical principles.

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What does it mean to go to church in an age where people are wired and connected together across ethereal planes, so that they can see and hear each other even while on separate continents?  Does this sort of connected world mean that the local church gathered at a certain physical address is passé?  Have we superseded the need for a group of people meeting in a building of wood, brick, or bamboo?  Two articles this week help us think through what it means to be a church—and the key issue is how we are to love each other in ways that don’t transfer well by wire.

Last Friday, Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, posted an article entitled, “The Deep Limitations of Digital Church.”  Dr. Mohler considers the case of Christ Fellowship in McKinney, Texas, as described in a USA Today article by Cathy Lynn Grossman:

“Find the church by going online — the 21st-century version of sighting a steeple on the horizon. Beyond their website, Christ Fellowship has a Facebook page to give it a friendly presence in social media.

You can download the worship program by scanning their customized-with-a-cross QR code. The worship services are streamed online from their Internet campus — with live chat running so you can share spiritual insights in real time.

Afterward, says senior Pastor Bruce Miller, ’someone will ask you, ‘How did it go? Did God help you, today? How can we help you?’ Just like we do when people come to our building in McKinney. We are here to help people find and follow Christ, wherever they are starting out from.’

And wherever they are in the digital world.”

While appreciating the many benefits of the digital age in making vast numbers of sermons and books available that will bless and strengthen Christians and allow the message of Jesus to reach people who might never enter a church building, Dr. Mohler rightly notes that a church is far more than an information source:

“Believers need the accountability found only within the local church. We need to hear sermons preached by flesh-and-blood preachers in the real-time experience of Christian worship. We need to confess the faith together through the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. We need to confess our sins and declare forgiveness by the blood of Christ together. We need to be deployed for service in Christ’s name together….

A digital preacher will not preach your funeral. The deep limitations of digital technologies become evident where the church is most needed. Don’t allow the Internet to become your congregation. YouTube is a horrible place to go to church.”

So, for those of us convinced that we ought to meet face-to-face rather than face-to-Facebook when we gather as a church, what elements can be mediated (no pun intended) electronically?  Dr. Carl Trueman of Westminster Theological Seminary, never fearful of telling it straight, published a critique last Thursday of multi-site churches, in which people gather in many locations, but share a pastor via televised sermons.  He notes that, no matter how good a band’s live CD is, the live concert is always better; there’s something about the actual presence of the group that makes it more real and more thrilling than just hearing the music can do.  Leaving aside for the moment the idea of a pastor or pastors being accountable for people in a satellite church that they’ve never even seen, Dr. Trueman argues that deep down the advocates for a multi-site model recognize the power of presence, and that they’ve confessed that understanding by a “poker tell:” the fact that churches with a telecast preaching service almost always have live musicians, because live musicians are vital to the sense of reality when the church gathers.  Dr. Trueman asks, “Why have a real band when the most important thing, the preaching, can be beamed in?   Or is it that the preaching is no longer the most important thing?”  He argues that “to have the big man piped in” may draw a crowd, but it removes the interaction between speaker and hearers, and in doing so it weakens the immediate urgency of responding to the message.  The whole article is well worth reading.

Faithful brothers and sisters may debate on the wisdom and even the biblical grounds for a multi-site (or even multi-service) model of church.  But as I read these articles and ponder, I trust that we would agree at least on two points:

1.  The church is meant to be more than receiving information from the Bible and what to do about that information—though it ought not to be less than that.  Real church involves followers of Jesus walking together in growing faith and obedience, learning what it is Christ would have us to do, and then encouraging each other along the way, over obstacles and through hardships, all the way to the Savior’s feet.  We can’t do that with electronic avatars—the enemies we war against are not flesh and blood (Eph. 6:12), but our brothers and sisters are.

2.  We dare not let the central point of the church’s gathering be anything less than the Word of God coming to the people of God.  We do many things when we come together: we sing, we pray, we tell of what God has done for us, we share in the Lord’s Supper and in baptism.  But all of these things will go wrong if they are not constantly and clearly tied back to what God says first of all to us as He calls us out of darkness into His kingdom of light.  And if any part of our service—whether simulcast or together in one room at one time—threatens to obscure that centrality, we dare not risk some other good thing eclipse the breathed-out Word of the Spirit.

For thought and feedback: Many of the churches practicing or advocating a multi-site model are seeking to reach people in large cities, often cities with very few faithful, evangelical, gospel-preaching and practicing churches.  If not this model, what would we urge our brothers and sisters to do instead?  What biblical principles or precedents would we offer to ground our advice?

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Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile, writing at Pure Church right after Easter, pointed out that the two disciples walking to Emmaus had no idea who Jesus was, even as He walked and talked with them, opening the Scriptures (Luke 24:13-32).  From this passage Brother Anyabwile warns us of three insufficient ways of recognizing Jesus for who He is:

1.  “Physical senses alone are insufficient for recognizing Jesus for who He is.”  The disciples saw, heard, and felt Jesus; they ate with Him, yet they didn’t figure out His identity.  Who are we to think that if we saw Jesus face to face we’d recognize Him?  Our experiences with Jesus won’t be enough.

2.  “Facts alone are insufficient for recognizing Jesus for who He is—even if the facts are firsthand eyewitness testimonies.”  The men on the road to Emmaus had the facts down cold.  They knew their hopes and dreams that Jesus was to be the Messiah who would rescue Israel from their enemies.  They knew all too well the details of Jesus’ arrest, trial, death, and burial.  They knew the bizarre story the women had brought that morning of an empty tomb and a risen Lord.  But they didn’t connect the dots and recognize the inquisitive stranger in front of their noses.  Knowing Jesus requires facts, but it takes more than just facts.

3.  “Bible study alone is insufficient for recognizing Jesus for who He is.”  Jesus Himself opened the Scriptures to them, and they came away seeing more clearly that Messiah had to be slain and resurrected—but they still didn’t see that it was He who stood before them teaching.  Having spent years in church as a professing Christian, knowing the Bible well before I actually was turned to Christ, I think this is what resonated most deeply with me in Pastor Anyabwile’s article.  So what does it take to recognize Jesus?

4.  TheOne Infallible Way of Knowing the Truth about Jesus and the Resurrection: We must have our eyes opened by God.”  It was not until the moment when the Father let them recognize Jesus that it sunk in for the disciples at Emmaus (v. 16, 30-32).  When He takes off the blinders offered by the god of this age (2 Cor. 4:3-4) and willingly worn by all of us left to our own devices (John 3:19, 9:40-41), then our experiences, our awareness of gospel facts, and our knowledge of Scripture will show us who Jesus really is.

And Brother Thabiti reminds us who this Jesus is that we’ll recognize when we see Him for all that He is:

  • Jesus has come in the flesh (1 John 4:2-3).
  • Jesus is God’s unique Son (Romans 1:3-4).
  • Jesus is Lord—our Ruler and King (1 Corinthians 12:3, Luke 6:46-49).

Read the article in all of its soul-feeding fullness here.

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Ernie Baker, writing at the Biblical Counseling Coalition’s website, notes:

There doesn’t seem to be a day in recent years without bad news. Whether it’s Israel and Iran and threats of more war in the Middle East, or talk of economic meltdown here in the U.S. and around the world, it can feel overwhelming. On one particular day last June, when it seemed like the whole Middle East was on fire with riots and war, and Europe was facing huge economic issues, a news reporter said something like, “I feel like the whole world is falling apart, could somebody please post a picture of a puppy?”

Yet Baker rightly points out that the deepening darkness provides a context where the message of Jesus can be seen more clearly as the great good news it is.  He goes on to say, “I actually think our best ministry years are ahead. As culture continues to deteriorate, people will be looking for answers.”  As marriages fall apart faster and faster, there will be questions for those whose marriages last because of the power of the gospel.  As crisis after crisis comes up, there will be questions for those who are able to not fall apart when their worlds do.  He concludes,

So we probably have some really challenging and exhausting ministry years ahead. And we are going to need to trust the Lord for strength, but think of how rewarding they will be as people look for answers and lives are changed. The darker the night the brighter the light of God’s Word shines. Will you light some candles with me?

Read the rest here.

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