Doing the math :: thoughts on Jenkins, gambling and wealth

08 November 2013

So just as I was about to hit publish and was following up with proper links, I saw Jerry Jenkins responded just today to one article. I appreciate this lengthy, quite open and frank letter. Thank you for sharing it with us, Jerry.


And now an update on something that will only interest you if you grew up in the American Christian subculture of the 1990s. Yes, I'm going to talk about Jerry Jenkins and gambling. If these words mean nothing to you, feel free to move on to This American Life or Real Simple or something.

Ok, everybody else still here? Welcome Moodies, youth group friends, and Mom. Let's recap:

A few weeks ago World Magazine published an article on Jerry Jenkins and his frequent past-time of playing poker for money. The article quoted Jenkins - chairman of the Board of Trustees for Moody Bible Institute and best-selling author of the oft maligned, though still popular Left Behind Series - saying,

"… You can do the math. I’ve sold 70 million books. So to break even making $8,000 playing poker, it’s kind of pocket change for me.”

This article pushed a couple of long-simmering buttons for me, as it did for many others, particularly fellow alumni of Moody. But gambling isn't one of them. Though I'm not particularly keen on the "sport" of gambling, Jenkins would claim what he plays is a "game of skill." 

“I don’t play for what I would consider significant amounts of money. And I wouldn’t gamble, either. I mean, I don’t play slots,” he said.

It can be argued he is in fact gambling if he's winning (or losing) $8,000 worth of pocket change from his opponents. But again, that alone is not the soul of the troubling issues this article brings to light. 

My uncomfortableness rests in three things:

1) The double standard Moody seems to place on its students, staff and trustees, setting forth strict codes of conduct based on (or implied by) biblical principles for students and staff (gambling, for one, is strictly prohibited; other activities such as drinking, smoking and movie-going are also prohibited for students) while the trustees enjoy no such prohibition. See also The New York Times article 'In Culture Shift, Evangelical College Lifts Alcohol Ban.'

Asked whether Jenkins’ hobby might send a mixed message to students, Regnerus said the school expected students to recognize matters of Christian liberty, while abiding by rules meant to accommodate families and churches with stricter convictions. 
“Moody is aware that Jerry Jenkins participates in poker, which is not prohibited in Scripture,” Regnerus said. He added the school does not have an official position that would clarify whether it considers poker to be gambling.

This exchange was frustrating, and though it may very well have been unintentional, to many former students it seemed misleading and disingenuous. Yes, Jesus doesn't mention poker. But the student life guide does. And while the weaker brother argument is a valid one - not wanting to discourage or discriminate against students who may come from more conservative or traditional faith traditions - it seems untoward to expect students to respect the Christian liberty of the men whose names are on the buildings and make the decisions for the student body. After all, they are the ones making rules for the students that they themselves do not abide by.

2) In the World article, Jenkins admits an attempt to hide his poker playing from the Chicago-area Christian community. 

“It’s too close to Chicago. I serve on the board of Moody, so I wouldn’t want to cause any embarrassment to anybody if they had a problem with that. … I live in Colorado, so if I play it’s outside the Midwest.”

I fail to understand his reasoning. If he's not gambling, as he says, then why hide it? And if Moody doesn't have a problem with its trustees gambling, whom would he embarrass? He's also been known to enjoy this game of skill with James MacDonald, a Chicago-area pastor and co-author of Jenkins' latest book. Both men are extremely well-off financially, supported by the same community they're hiding from.

3) The most troubling aspect of the article was the perceived posture of Jenkins, who refers to himself as being "flush," refers to the money he's gambled, lost and won as "pocket change," and states that playing in a casino where his son is a dealer is the only way he's able to interact with non-believers.

“Frankly, were it not for poker, we would hardly ever rub shoulders with unsaved people.”

What concerns me most is his flippant disregard for people and resources. What is pocket change to him is nearly double one month's salary for a middle-class family in the US, and it could very well be the difference between life or death in many parts of the world.

It's not just that he's a high income earner. There are many wealthy people who practice good stewardship and hold themselves to a high standard of accountability. But it's the idea that someone who so easily plays away - or, conversely, takes away - large sums of money as a means of "ministry" is a gatekeeper and leader of the modern evangelical church movement in America, shaping future pastors, teachers, bible study leaders, worship leaders, and - yes - missionaries.

Many of these students, alumni, teachers and donors are in the trenches: caring for those in need, leaving the comforts of home to live in the developing world, flying planes filled with food and medicine into the jungle, ministering to and sharing Jesus with prison inmates or preschool moms or the orphan or the homeless. Or any other number of ways Christ-followers choose to share his love with others. We look to people like Jenkins or MacDonald to show us the way of Jesus. A better way. I simply struggle to find the spirit of love Jenkins may share as he takes their money from the table. "Blessed are the poor in Spirit?"


After sharing these frustrations via Twitter, a representative of Moody Radio contacted me and kindly forwarded my email to Moody. It was lengthy and I probably went off the handle a bit and asked them if the president of Moody, someone Matt and I deeply respect, had any response. No, he didn't.

But Jenkins did, again through Moody's PR manager.

"I love Moody Bible Institute more than I can fully express. Having been a student here in the 1960s, then editor of MOODY magazine and finally vice president for Moody Publishers as an employee of more than 30 years, and having the privilege of serving this wonderful organization on its Board of Trustees, the last thing in the world I ever wanted was for my personal activities to bring harm or embarrassment to this place that I love." 
"I never perceived my playing poker to be anything but a hobby, but I see now that it is inconsistent with my role as a Moody Trustee. I viewed it as something I was free to do, but on reflection I understand that the negative aspects of the commercial gaming industry taint any association with public card playing, regardless of my intent." 
“I am sorry for this error in judgment and for the harm I have caused. I ask your forgiveness and ask that you pray that I would be found worthy of the great privilege and high calling I have been given as Moody's chairman of the Board. Thank you."

We, too, love Moody more than we can express. It gave us eachother, refined our callings and honed our gifts. It gave us brilliant friendships with students and with faculty that still ring true and run strong. We go back frequently and reminisce, showing our children where we first met and which dorm I lived in and how we sat on Culby 2 with all of our floor-mates watching the series finale of Seinfeld. In the spirit of full disclosure, we maybe even stroll through the tunnels where we would sneak an illicit kiss between class.

We have wonderful, beautiful memories and in so many ways, Moody gave us the life we have. It's not a life like Jerry Jenkins has, and I hope he understands that. The students he's leading may very well choose a different way.

People over things, and a posture of love.

I find myself in a daily struggle with obedience in the pursuit of those callings. A good, painful struggle; a different type of game of skill. And I hope to share more about it here, with you, soon.


  1. Bravo! And praise the Lord!

  2. Did it ever occur to you that actually you may be the poor steward, since you have not made nearly as much of your time and talent as Jenkins?