Therapeutic-Gnostic Pentecostalism?

Julie Roys ran a story yesterday by Sarah Einselen about a new congregation, which apparently opened this summer, in San Diego. Living Faith Church is a small congregation pastored by a husband and wife team, Stephen and Angela Dela Cruz. The salacious part of the story is that she was (is?) a porn star and he is a business coach. They met at the former Bethany University, which closed in 2011, an Assemblies of God related school. Together they claim to run ten multi-million dollar businesses. They do not say of what sort. It is not clear whether Angela Dela Cruz is still active in the porn industry but the two are clearly capitalizing on her past to generate “buzz” and interest in this congregation. One social media ad identifies her as an “adult actress,” which is code for pornstar. Judging by what one can see from videos of the services the porn angle may be generating more outrage than new members. They are clearly meeting in a very small space with relatively few people. What is more impressive, however, is how formulaic everything is. We see three musicians on a platform singing the same awful “praise music” as every other would-be mega-church in America. The messages seem to be firmly in the middle of the American evangelical therapeutic religion. Stephen is the poor-man’s Joel Osteen and he is going to help you live your best life now.

Your Porn Life Now

For the sake of discussion, since they are clearly capitalizing on her life in the porn business, let us presume that the Stephen and Angela believe and are teaching others that a being a Christian and living a judgment-free successful life are entirely compatible.  The congregation’s statement of faith looks as if it were written by students from an AOG “university” circa 2011. Whoever wrote the confession wants to be an orthodox, Arminian, Baptistic, Pentecostal. It has a relatively high view of Scripture:

The Bible is God’s Word to all people. It was written by human authors under the supernatural guidance of the Holy Spirit. Because it was inspired by God, the Bible is truth without any mixture of error and is completely relevant to our daily lives.

The Holy spirit is said to be given “subsequent to salvation” and the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” is a second blessing. “This immersion into Spirit-led living provides the Christian with the power to live a fruitful, victorious life, understanding of spiritual truth, and boldness in sharing the good news with others. He also gives us spiritual gifts. As Christians, we seek to live under His daily guidance.” If Mrs Dela Cruz is impenitent about her role in the porn industry, a major source of human trafficking and exploitation and a source of spiritual destruction for many, then they are proposing a definition of the victorious higher life hitherto unknown. Without a hint of irony their statement of faith unequivocally affirms the existence of a literal hell. Salvation is said to be by grace but the statement offers nothing on the doctrines of mortification of sin or vivification in the new life.

Therapeutic Gnosticism

If the mainstream of American evangelicalism has become entirely captive to what Christian Smith, in 2009, called “moralistic therapeutic deism” much of the rest of it has become a subsidiary: Gnostic therapeutic pentecostalism. In Deism God is largely absent. In Pentecostalism, especially of the sort being marketed by the Dela Cruzes, God is a cosmic Door Dash driver. This is not old-school Pentecostalism, which was rooted in the Holiness tradition. As Marx materialized Hegel (by turning the dialectical process of history into class warfare) so the real second blessing offered by the likes of Stephen and Angela Dela Cruz is an emotionally satisfying, financially prosperous life now. Joel Osteen has routed the Azusa Street Revival. Like all the other second-rate business coaches in the world they have the secrets to success. Mind you, unlike Warren Buffet and Jeff Bezos, they are not actually producing wealth themselves but they will show you how you can do it. Instead of cheesy late-night television commercials they are holding church services with the requisite praise music, which promises to give participants that shot of endorphins followed by a rousing pep talk.

This is fundamentally Gnostic because it offers a perverse salvation through secret knowledge (Gnosis). This, of course, is what the Gnostics offered in the second century. Like the Gnostics, they hijacked Christianity through redefining terms and changing the story dramatically. In Gnosticism the God of the Old Testament, Yahweh, was rendered a mean, demiurge tied to creation, which was said to be inherently evil. The immaterial, i.e., the spiritual, was said to be good. The key to deliverance from the material world is a secret known only to true Gnostics. They developed an elaborate hierarchy of being and promised to guide followers through the maze. The Jesus of the second-century Gnostic texts is not the Jesus of the Gospels. The Gnostics typically sought to fill in the gaps. So where we know little of Jesus’ childhood, they filled in the story with accounts of a little divine brat (e.g., the infancy gospels). In some accounts, Judas is the hero and Jesus is the goat. The Gnostics produced a substantial body of alternative gospels, acts, epistles, and apocalypses to compete with the Christian version. This is the stuff the hacks like Dan Brown peddle as the real, authentic Christianity that has been hidden from you. Shame on Tom Hanks for getting anywhere near that property. He should have fired his manager for that one.

Late-modern evangelical Gnosticism offers more material than immaterial comforts but the same ambivalence about the flesh is present now as it was then. The Gnostics did not quite know what to do with the human body. Because the material world was said to be evil and to have less being some Gnostics sought to deny the flesh. Others, however, concluded that since the flesh is evil and not entirely real it matters not what one does with it and so they indulged in sensuality. The Dela Cruzes seem to have opted that version of Gnosticism.

The Pentecostals have always toyed with aspects of Gnosticism. Just as the Gnostics divided the world into three classes (the Gnostics, who had the esoteric knowledge) and those who do not (e.g., the Christians and the rest) so the Pentecostals divide the world into two: those Christians who have had the second blessing, those Christians who have not and the rest. Just as the Gnostics featured leading personalities, figures who peddled the secret knowledge so the Pentecostal movement has always been built around personalties offering secret knowledge about how to obtain the gifts of the Spirit and how to exercise them properly. Like the Gnostics, the Pentecostals have always been ambivalent about the material world. The old-school holiness Pentecostals were strict world-deniers. The new-model Pentecostals are so world-affirming that the so-called “Prosperity Gospel” of health and wealth flourishes among them. Have you ever perused a copy of Charisma Magazine? It is the People Magazine of the tongue-speaking set.

The Second Benefit Is Not A Second Blessing

In the Reformation the magisterial Protestant theologians and churches were united in their confession that there is double benefit or twofold grace in salvation: justification by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone and a gracious, gradual sanctification whereby Christians, in union with Christ, seek to put to death the old man and to be made alive in the new man. As it was taught by Calvin and Olevianus there was a logical order of these benefits. It is those who are freely justified who are being freely sanctified. Pentecostalsm, however, turned the second benefit (sanctification) into a second blessing.

Thus, the discontinuity between biblical, historic, confessional Protestant Christianity and the Gnostic-Therapeutic-Pentecostalism of the Dela Cruzes is quite sharp. We still believe the seventh commandment: You shall not commit adultery, which, with the rest of Scripture, we understand to forbid all sexual immorality and even the salacious marketing of a church on the basis of life in porn. Every true church is a church by sinners for sinners. Every true church preaches salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Every true church also administers the sacraments purely and exercises church discipline (Belgic Confession art. 29). To say these things is not judgmental. It is basic Christianity. This is what Christians have always said.

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God (1 Cor 6:9–11; ESV).

There is a second benefit. The justified will be sanctified. There is, however, no second blessing. There is no promise of earthly prosperity to the believer. The early Christians experienced precious little prosperity but they did experience persecution.

Endorphins are not a second blessing. They are just endorphins. A runner’s high, even if produced by the right chord progression, is not “pure and undefiled religion” (James 1:27). Real Christianity not only affirms the true humanity of Christ but also the true humanity of Christians. Yes, sinners of all sorts are welcome. Let them steam into Zion from all the corners of the world (Ps 2:8; 22:27; 67;4; 86:9). Jesus was most earnest when he said,

All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt 11:27–30; ESV)

The offer of the gospel is free. Salvation is free. It is by grace alone, through faith alone. The Spirit does not begin working after you believe. If you believe it is because they Spirit worked in you new life and true faith. There is no second blessing. There is only the consequences of new life: dying to sin and living to Christ. This is why Jesus said,

 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (Matt 16:24–28; ESV)

There is, however, such a thing as a message of “cheap grace” and the Dela Cruzes would seem to be the poster children for it. Any preacher who only offers “free salvation” but who omits “take up your cross” as a consequence (not a prior condition) of that grace is a preaching a false, antinomian, Gnostic, therapeutic gospel.

The tragedy of this story is not that the Dela Cruzes exist. Of course they do and especially in the capital of Narcissism that is Southern California. No, the tragedy of the Dela Cruzes is that they are just one of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands peddling the same Gnostic Thereapeutic “Power Religion.” How many formerly sound evangelical congregations have sold their birthright for the porridge that is some version of a shot of endorphins followed by some therapeutic message delivered by a huckster posing as a minister? A wanton disregard of the holy law of God is obviously scandalous but the subterranean, Gnostic revolution in American Christianity is perhaps the even greater and more profound scandal here.


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  1. Well, I may get lambasted for this. But looking at their Facebook page and other sources, I’d say there’s a pretty good chance that they’re both still in their original lines of work.

  2. The “Partnership” page on the church website has a minimum recommended donation button set for $125 a week. Maybe I’m just a poor Tennessee boy, but that sounds like just another money making scheme to me.

  3. I scrolled through one of their “worship” livestreams out morbid curiosity. That was a snooze fest. The prayer for the offering seemed “heartfelt”. I’m gonna give the benefit of the doubt to the poor musicians that he certainly isn’t paying, but it was real bad. I went to more then my share of hip revival meetings growing up and they at least sang with some passion. There were also only twenty people there. The “adult actress” angle may be just something to drum up some actual interest.

  4. She is most definitely still active. From her book:

    Although I do porn and am a webcam model, I am a devoted Christian who has learned that religious people are judgmental and hateful toward those who don’t fit in their cookie cutter life. But Jesus accepts and loves me in all my pain, struggle and humanness. I actually want to preach in churches to stop hating ‘sinners’ and start loving them! “Don’t hate me because I sin differently than you

  5. Just a little technical point. It is not ‘faith alone’, that exists nowhere in the bible.
    It is faith, with works as the fruit of grace.

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