Holy Rollers: Should Christians Count Cards?

Some things make me uneasy. At times it has been simple to pinpoint what it was that made me uneasy, and then I simply had to decide whether it was something I needed to get over or actively oppose. Some things are less straightforward than that, however. Holy Rollers, a film about card-counting Christians, was something that made me immediately uneasy. Before viewing the film, I had a lot of questions.

The documentary itself is well put together; the production and editing are both well done, and I was impressed with the quality of it. Not every day do we see films about or related to Christians that are considered quality. I was glad that I didn’t need to wade through shoddy editing, poor filming, or uninteresting dialogue.

The content itself, of course, was tricky. Here’s the premise (though I do recommend viewing the film): a group of believers ended up forming a card-counting league, where they would hit casinos on a regular basis. This was, for many of them, their primary source of income, sometimes supporting their families, often helping support their jobs in full time ministry. From this, a story about trust, gambling, and conviction quickly emerges.

So what do we do, as Christians, with the suggestion that our brothers and sisters gambled for a living, for at least a few years? On the one hand, most of us would recognize gambling, at least at this level, as an unwise use of our funds; we would be bad stewards of the provisions God has given to us. On the flip of this–and this is what a lot of those involved on the so-called Church Team often argued–taking money from the casinos in a legal way allowed those involved to both fund their ministries and it had the benefit of ‘beating the bad guys,’ so to speak. It’s easy to make an argument for either position, though I find myself landing squarely in the first camp, at least generally speaking.

Here’s the issue I have with the whole concept: most of the time, it feels like the underlying ethic is utilitarian; the ends justify the means. While many of those involved in this league would certainly draw the line somewhere, the principle lurking beneath the actions remain the same: we do what we do regardless of its moral quality in order to fund what we believe to be a noble cause. Whether or not the cause is holy, I don’t think we can justify acting in what I would call sin to get there. One of the gamblers came to this conclusion, and he left the team. He was convicted initially that he himself couldn’t do this for a living, but then later he made the shift to say that he didn’t think that that gambling for a living was appropriate for any believer. I think the stronger statement is accurate, and I’d be willing to stand by it.

The tricky part comes when some of the members of the team felt as though God specifically called them to the gambling ring, as if it was their vocation. My hesitation here is simple: if God truly spoke to and called someone, I wouldn’t want to be on the side of attempting to invalidate that. Of course, I don’t think this is the case here: since my conviction (and, I hope, my understanding of Christian ethics) tells me that being involved in an organized (albeit legal) gambling ring is a problem for believers, it follows that I can rightfully say those involved were in the wrong.

While a discussion of ethics naturally comes out of this documentary, it isn’t one that takes place in the documentary itself, at least not to any conclusion. Those involved consistently question themselves, justify their actions, and speak about their convictions. I was impressed with the way the film handled the faith of its subjects; I never got the impression the Christians were polished, but I also got the sense that they truly believed what they did with good reason. These were reasonable people who made informed decisions, even if I ended up disagreeing with most of them.

I recommend watching the film and making up your own mind, however. It’s a fascinating documentary, and well worth checking out.

Image via Wikipedia.

Published by

J.F. Arnold

James received his MA in Philosophy of Religion at Talbot School of Theology in 2013. He holds a BA in Biblical Studies from Biola University, and is a graduate and perpetual member of the Torrey Honors Institute. James blogs on a number of subjects, including technology, theology, and hip-hop. He has written for Biola’s Center for Christianity, Culture, & the Arts, The Gospel Coalition, and he is an editor for Mere Orthodoxy. You can also keep up with him on Twitter (@jamesfarnold).

  • Michael Smith

    One thing about Christians gambling though. When you have a “head” for the “numbers”, the word gambling is not quite appropriate. God has given them the ability to calculate and so perform at a high level of excellence which reduces their odds of losing. The average welfare recipient that just bets and hopes to win is actually wasting their life and limited resources.

  • jamesfarnold

    While the gambling element can be reduced by shifting odds, it’s still a steeper gamble than I’d be willing to recommend to people. You even see this in the film: the best of the bunch, those who started the group, end up losing something like 80 grand in the span of a day or two. They win it back, but there was no guarantee they would. There wasn’t even a reasonable “this is pretty certainly going to happen” position, here. I know jobs can be fickle (could be laid off, employer could skip out on paying, etc.), but in our society being paid for a job is a reasonable expectation: expecting to win all of your money by playing blackjack isn’t.

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  • Brad

    “if God truly spoke to and called someone, I wouldn’t want to be on the side of attempting to invalidate that.” I’m one of the guys that was in the doc. The guy who everyone thought heard from God (it was a rumor going around the team.) I like the fact that the author of this article made this statement, quoted above. In fact, I like the whole article.

    Although, I agree with Michael Smith re: gambling. “Gambling”, as in going to casinos in hopes to win some fast money while the odds are against you, is unwise. Working for an hourly wage for investors, weather one is playing BJ or making computer programs, or turning a wrench, isn’t gambling. It’s merely, employment. If God has called you to it, it’s trust. Starting a risky business, or any business, or playing black jack, or laying on your side and being fed by ravens for months, all require faith. And, God will use our poor logic as well as our faith in order to steer us to different places… i.e. into, and then out of, a black jack team.

    And James, although, I won all of my money playing blackjack. I agree with you too. Don’t expect to ever find coins in the mouths of fish. That would be silly, unless of course Jesus asks you to.

  • jamesfarnold


    Thanks for commenting! I love hearing from those involved in the film. I got to interview the director, which you can read here:


    I find the argument that this sort of ‘gambling’ doesn’t actually constitute gambling fascinating. In one sense, you’re right. You were being paid an hourly wage with bonuses if you performed well. I’ve had similar jobs in the past. One summer, I painted houses, and we were paid an hourly wage, but if we finished a house under the budgeted hours, we’d get paid more per hour, and sometimes a straight-out bonus.

    I guess the whole system is what throws me, though. Granted, the individual ‘gamblers’ who are out on the floors are not ‘gambling’ to earn their own money, but they are gambling someone’s money. Those investors took a risk. It isn’t a sure-fire thing, which we saw in the film. Sometimes people lost money. Sometimes it was a lot of money.

    Risk alone, of course, isn’t a sufficient reason not to do something. Every job is risky (you could get fired, laid off, company could go bankrupt, etc.), but something about this particular job struck me as far more risky than was necessary.

    If I’m being honest (and forgive me, if necessary), I find myself mentally pushing against the idea that God called someone to enter into this as a career option. It might be one thing were this a sort of ministry (gamble, hope to make some money, but talk about Jesus and maybe the problem of suffering or something at the blackjack table), in the sense that it would directly be evangelism, rather than funding your ministries back home.

    I’m *still* working through these issues. None of my roommates had conclusions either, as they watched the film with me.

    “Starting a risky business, or any business, or playing black jack, or laying on your side and being fed by ravens for months, all require faith.”

    Spot on. These would certainly all require faith. The only questions, then, are these: Is gambling for a living sinful, and did God really call people to do this?

    The first I’m still working through, and I’m not sure I’ll ever have an answer to the second.

  • TPLackey

    This is the type of ‘end justifying the means’ hypocritical action that hurts the faith. Maybe God gave me the ability to cook books or hack systems to take money from ‘corporate’ criminals’…it’s how you use it that defines you. I wish I had a dollar for every person that says God told them or sent them a sign to do something. Usually, it’s just to justify something they know they need an excuse for doing.

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