The sun sets behind Stauffer Chapel on campus Feb. 18. George Pepperdine founded the school in 1937 and it has been affiliated with the Church of Christ ever since. Photo by Ashley Mowreader
Since its founding in 1937, Pepperdine has been affiliated with the Churches of Christ. The University’s founder, George Pepperdine, was a “lifelong member” of the Church of Christ, according to Pepperdine’s website.
Despite Pepperdine’s history and longstanding ties with the Church of Christ, most students are not members of the Church of Christ, and many said they don’t know what it is or why the University is associated with it.
“Pepperdine is affiliated with Churches of Christ because George Pepperdine wanted to establish a Christian college on the West Coast that was open to all people, but retained a close connection to the Church of Christ,” wrote Religion Professor Dyron Daughrity, also a practicing preacher and member of the Church of Christ, in a March 14 email to the Graphic.
The Church of Christ is unique in many ways, Daughrity wrote. One of the most well-known practices that sets the Church of Christ apart is a lack of instruments in worship, although there are now churches that incorporate instruments.
There are also larger-scale differences, like the lack of formal connections between individual churches, that are specific to the Church of Christ.
“We have no denominational structure, no creeds, no hierarchy, no ordination system, no large gatherings and very few platforms that even make us conscious of one another,” Daughrity wrote.
While not wholly unique to the Church of Christ, there is a strong concern for the Bible that is also characteristic of the Church, Daughrity wrote.
“We have a history of trying to root our practices in the biblical witness,” Daughrity wrote. “Many churches do this, but it is certainly something that is important to the Church of Christ.”
Another area of concern for the Church of Christ is education, Daughrity wrote. There are 20 accredited colleges and universities affiliated with the Church of Christ in the U.S., and this reflects the Church’s commitment to the education of its members.
Pepperdine is one of these schools, although the religious makeup of its students does not reflect this affiliation. Only 6% of students enrolled at Pepperdine in fall 2021 were members of the Church of Christ, according to data from the Office of Institutional Effectiveness.
“Pepperdine is probably the best known Church of Christ university in America, yet just a fraction of Pepperdine’s student body is from the Church of Christ,” Daughrity wrote. “Non-Church of Christ students, faculty and staff far outnumber Church of Christ members on our campus.”
Junior Isa Armstrong is a third-generation member of the Church of Christ, but said she did not come to Pepperdine solely because of her background.
During her time at Pepperdine, Armstrong said she has met people who didn’t even know things like a capella worship existed — a traditional hallmark of the Church of Christ.
“Not only do I not see Church of Christ influence at the school, but I feel like most of the people around me don’t know what it is or they haven’t heard of it or anything,” Armstrong said. “That’s been a really interesting experience.”
Despite feeling like there’s a lack of Church of Christ representation on campus, Armstrong said she has grown in her faith and redefined what it means for her to be part of the Church of Christ at Pepperdine. She has also connected with others in the Church.
“I’m kind of finding the community of Church of Christ people,” Armstrong said. “It’s a small community, but we’re there.”
Pepperdine works to keep the bond between the University and the Churches of Christ strong, even as the percentage of Church of Christ students and faculty is small, Daughrity wrote.
“In the last few years, several initiatives have been developed to try to nurture that connection, for example the hiring of Jeff Walling, who has done a wonderful job working to revitalize the Church of Christ and Pepperdine relationship,” Daughrity wrote.
Historically, there is a trend in which Protestant universities become secular institutions after about 150 years or so, Daughrity wrote. Schools like Harvard, Yale and Princeton were once religiously affiliated, but eventually secularized.
“Protestant universities typically ‘drift’ away from their religious heritage in order to appeal to more people-groups,” Daughrity wrote. “We call this phenomenon a ‘mission drift.’ And there reaches a point where the religious heritage of the university becomes, essentially, irrelevant.”
Despite historical precedent for Protestant universities and secularization, Pepperdine remains true to its Church of Christ roots, Daughrity wrote, although it’s impossible to know how long that will continue.
“The Christian religion is at the heart of our work here at Pepperdine,” Daughrity wrote. “We try to live out the Christian values of hospitality, mercy, compassion, selfless love, and trusted friendship.”
Pepperdine’s Church of Christ affiliation is rooted in the earliest moments of the University, and is still at the forefront of the school’s commitment “to the highest standards of academic excellence and Christian values.”
Daughrity wrote he chooses to teach at a Church of Christ university because he believes in giving students a rigorous education that is also influenced by the life of Jesus Christ.
“My hope is that people who choose to study at this amazing university will at least understand a bit about Jesus, and the life he lived,” Daughrity said. ”If we point people to Him, then we can consider ourselves successful, as that is the hallmark of a distinctively Christian university.”
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