Differentiation of Self and Christian Spiritual Maturity: Social Science and Theological Integration

Article excerpt

Differentiation of Self (DoS) is a social science construct that is useful for an integrative conceptualization of Christian spiritual maturity. Differentiated relationality has its theological grounding in the Trinity. This article outlines interdisciplinary perspectives in social science, cultural diversity, biblical data, systematic theology, and spiritual formation to suggest DoS as a Christian spiritual maturity construct. Practical applications and implications for further empirical and theological research are outlined.


Over the past two decades, literature on spirituality has greatly expanded in both theology and social science. However, the vast majority of theoretical and empirical works have focused on spiritual well-being as opposed to spiritual maturity (Shults & Sandage, 2006). From a psychological perspective, this is problematic since psychological well-being and maturity are only modestly correlated (Bauer & McAdams, 2004). Developmental models of spiritual formation throughout the Christian tradition have also distinguished transitions from early phases of spirituality to the more mature. Maturity is a developmental and teleological theme in Christian spirituality and is described throughout Scripture. Christ described it in his parable of the sower as including growth in faith (Lk 8:1-15) with other references expressing the concept of various levels of growth or development (1 Cor 2:6; Phil 3:15; Col 4:12; Heb 5:14). There is a Divine call to pursue maturity (Heb 6:1) with perseverance being associated with attaining maturity (Jas 1:4). The ultimate expression of Christian maturity, and its ongoing developmental process, is related to becoming the image of Christ (Rom 8:29) and expressing "unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, while attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ" (Eph 4:11-16). (1)

Several integrative Christian theories of spiritual maturity have been developed (e.g., Gibson, 2004) with a smaller number of theories being empirically tested. Ellison (1994) conceptualized both spiritual well-being and maturity based on the Hebrew concept of shalom, implying personal and relational wholeness and harmony. Ellison's Spiritual Well-Being Scale has been widely used in research but his Spiritual Maturity Index has not, perhaps because the distinctions between well-being and maturity are somewhat ambiguous in his theory. TenElshof and Furrow (2000) conceptualized spiritual maturity from a relational perspective and found secure attachment styles were positively correlated with scores on the Faith Maturity Index in a sample of evangelical seminary students. Hall has employed Object Relations and attachment theories in doing the most empirical research on Christian spiritual maturity, including development of the Spiritual Assessment Inventory (SAI) as a measure (Hall & Edwards, 2002). In Hall's model, spiritual maturity represents a capacity to connect with God but also tolerate periods of subjective disconnection, which reflects the development of object constancy or a secure attachment with God. Empirically, the level of object relations and relational God images development have been correlated with spiritual maturity (Hall & Brokaw, 1995; Hall, Brokaw, Edwards, & Pike, 1998) and longitudinal research has shown increased intrinsic faith predicts increased spiritual maturity using the SAI (Williamson & Sandage, 2009). Thus, there is some empirical support for views of spiritual maturity that emphasize secure and intrinsic forms of relational spirituality.

Differentiation of Self (DoS) represents another relational construct that is promising for conceptualizing spiritual maturity. Integrative theorists have explored the construct of DoS in relation to (a) spiritual development (Balswick, King, & Reimer, 2005; Jankowski & Vaughn, 2009; Sandage, Jensen, & Jass, 2008), (b) marital and family dynamics (Balswick & Balswick, 2007; Holeman, 2004; Hung, 2006), (c) religious leadership and congregational life (Friedman, 1985; Richardson, 1996, 2005; Steinke, 1993, 2006), and interpersonal forgiveness (Holeman, 1999; Shults & Sandage, 2003). …