The Ear: Roy Branson on the Church as Gemeinde

(system) #1

It’s no stretch to say that Roy Branson is a legend as a Sabbath School class leader. In Takoma Park, Maryland, the class at Sligo Church that he inspired and co-led over decades still meets. Though he moved to the west coast about a decade ago, long-participating members still associate the class with his name.

Branson’s gifts as a teacher blossomed early. After completing a doctorate at Harvard University, he came to the Seminary at Andrews University. His reading lists and seminar-style pedagogy blasted a hole in the long-standing cell of Adventist intellectual inwardness. Many students simply loved what he was doing, and perhaps no Seminary teacher, in so short a time, influenced more students into graduate study in theology, ethics and history. He came to Andrews in 1967, and because he was as controversial as he was engaging he was gone in just a few years. He has spent much of his adult life outside of employment in one of the church’s institutions.

Branson worked at, and was long affiliated with, the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University. For more than 20 years he edited Spectrum magazine. In the mid-1990s he was invited to teach at what was then Columbia Union College (now Washington Adventist University), where he established the Center for Law and Public Policy, a continuation of what had been the Washington Institute. In his role as Director he shaped an Adventist advocacy that helped bring a wider range of religious groups into the then-developing tobacco control movement.

Now Branson is with the School of Religion at Loma Linda University, where he has been Associate Dean and Director of the Center for Christian Bioethics. At Loma Linda he started another class—“from scratch,” as he says—and it now meets in the University’s Centennial Complex on Sabbath morning. The room there is a well-lit amphitheater. He calls it “quietly embracing.” About 30 attend each week.

Branson is a regular walker. And as a talker, he may have no peers. His curiosity about, and passion for, a deeper take on Adventism is legendary. He engages conversation partners with irrepressible abandon.

Here are his thoughts about the church at study:

Question: For decades you’ve led or co-led a Sabbath School class—first, at the Sligo Adventist Chuck and now in Centennial Hall at Loma Linda University. Why does doing this matter so much to you?

Answer: A church is many things, including memory, worship, belief, institutions, mission. Sabbath school classes emphasize the church as community: fellowship, face-to-face contact, sharing the ups, downs, tragedies and exaltations of a week. The Germans have a word to describe a relatively small fellowship community—gemeinde, as distinguished from gessellschaft-—an organization, corporation, institutional structure. I admire and respect the church as a gesellschaft, organized to accomplish great deeds with and for humanity. I cherish Sabbath schools as gemeinde, allowing us to both bask in the conversation of and be energized by people we know well enough to admire—most of the time.

Question: As I recall, you host, and only sometimes teach, as opposed to always teaching yourself. That must relate to your sense of what makes a great Sabbath School class. So what are the keys, do you think, to a class where conversation flourishes and members return again and again?

Answer: Some great Sabbath School classes have been weekly lectures. People have been imprinted for the better by hearing a thoughtful, articulate Adventist thinker exploring a perspective on scriptures, Christianity, Adventism.

Much of my life I have lived in urban areas with significant numbers of Adventists. I look forward to hearing from Adventists, including dedicated students of all ages, share their thoughts on topics that they have studying and writing about. Having a variety of speakers of all ages and some diversity of outlook serves to stimulate thinking on a greater range of topics than listening to one person all the time.

Question: How, if at all, do you take seriously the church’s official study guide (quarterly)? Explain your philosophy regarding content, or topics, that your class takes up?

Answer: The topics typically rise from the Bible, Christian faith through the centuries, or Adventist heritage. Some examples are: “Other Women in the Bible” (for example, Martha); the “Three Faces of Isaiah”, “Paul, We Hardly Knew You,” “The Early Church Councils,” “Minor Prophets of the New Testament.” I appreciate hearing lawyers, English and History professors, as well as research in religion from graduate students and young professors passionately committed to exploring topics I know little about.

As for the quarterly, I have devoted weeks to the topic of the Sabbath School Quarterly when it has focused on a book of the Bible.

Question: You once surveyed your class members (at Sligo) on their favorite and least-favorite books of the Bible, and then did a four-part series on the books members said they liked least. Do you still, now and then, do a series of sessions on a topic? Why?

Answer: Yes, not long ago, we spent weeks looking at the prophets. Members of the class devoted the summer to studying “Compelling Moral Visions,” starting with the New Testament and continuing to past Adventist thinkers and on to the present day. We spent most of another quarter looking at the Christian Church of the 4th Century—now often described as Late Antiquity. As Peter Brown demonstrates in his Through the Eye of a Needle, it is truly instructive to learn how devoted Christians responded to the fact that a growing number of them had been or were becoming part of the super-rich of the Mediterranean world. How to be faithful?

Why do a series? Because one can go into a single topic in greater depth, while hearing from diverse disciplines and points-of-view.

Question: How do you construct community—the sense that members of your class constitute a mini-Christian family?

Answer: Don’t take breaks—ever. And that’s only possible if you share the responsibility of teaching widely. The class is always there for the members of the class—as well as for the congregation and visitors. Develop a culture of courtesy; be a place where people both talk and listen to each other—converse, not deliver and endure monologues. And of course share tragedies behind the scenes and sometimes, if surviving members wish, within the group.

Image: Loma Linda University.

Read an interview with Roy Branson from 2008 here.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

(Elaine Nelson) #2

To be blessed to participate in his class is a privilege few will ever be able to enjoy. The students are not the members found in the average SS class, either. The teacher, as well as the intellectual level and eagerness to learn are also a major feature, unlike most classes.

Perhaps those factors are reflected in a recent paper reported in The Economist, Oct. 11: “Jut one extra year of schooling makes someone 10% less likely to attend a church, mosque or temple, pray alone or describe himself as religious. The extra schooling actually caused religiosity to fall, rather than merely decline. During those extra years mathematics and science classes typically become more rigorous, and increased exposure to analytical thinking may weaken the tendency to believe.”

This creates the paradox: while encouraging young people to pursue higher education it risks declining religious belief.

(Thomas J Zwemer) #3

How true, Following Glacier View, I found it difficult, if not impossible for anyone to accept the unique aspects of Adventist theology if not all religion. The only answer must be, there is no other place to go without finding baggage. Tom Z

(Andreas Bochmann) #4

Elaine, risk doesn’t excuse us from the task of education - whether it be in kindergarten, schools, universities - or Sabbath school. Personally I love it, when relatively “humble” people are challenged to think and discuss on a Sabbath morning, develop their understanding, stimulating their growth.

Incidentally, the adjective that people like Barth, Bonhoeffer, Niemöller connected with “gemeinde” was “mündig” (come of age, mature). It was the mündige Gemeinde who resisted the nazi regime in Germany, and distanced itself from the “Deutsche Kirche” (German church) who tended to hail the führer instead of Christ.

(Elaine Nelson) #5

Of course. When people realize their lack of knowledge, they seek ways to improve it. But when they are satisfied with what they already know they become content there is nothing more to learn.

(Sirje) #6

I was a relatively new Adventist from a non-English speaking home, with only few years of public school education behind me. I entered AUC as an elementary education major. On about the third day of my first class in the education department I found myself totally depressed and confused. I vowed never to go back into that classroom again, as the first assignment was to come up with games that teach something or other to first graders. I needed another major. A friend from my home church saw my agony and told me to run, not walk, to the registrar’s office and change my major to English. It will change your life, she said - and so I was thrust into the world of the likes of Dr.Ottilie Stafford and Roy Branson who was, at that time, a former student, attending Harvard Divinity school. I was over my head; and yes - it changed my life. (I should re-word that - there wasn’t anyone like Dr. Stafford.)

Roy would show up on campus on weekends and teach one of those SS classes. I totally understand what this article is talking about. The classes were awesome. But, there was a down side. Roy would not be there every Sabbath, which meant there were alternates. It was always somewhat of a disappointment to find someone else standing there as we separated for classes - (no offense). I know this, because I saw that disappointment on the weeks when I was an alternate.

I have no clue how I got to be up there, but the experience has lasted through these many years. I knew I had some big shoes to keep clean, never mind, fill. It was a challenge, and I loved it.

Thank you, Roy.

(Dee Roberts) #7

In the years that I lived in the greater DC area, I was privileged to attend Roy’s class, while he was there and after his move west, on many occasions and it is truly one of the most wonderful Sabbath School experiences you can have. Thinking, passionate, engaged Christians taking on difficult topics, open to hearing and discussing different perspectives. Truly wonderful.

(George Tichy) #8

Tom, Glacier View was a revealing moment in the SDA Church history. It revealed that EGW’s writings, not the Bible per se, are in actuality the the main engine of this denomination.

For me, personally, it was a major eye opener, teaching me that I should be part of a local church where I can practice being a Christian without being subservient to some denominational structure where some “guys upstairs in black suits” maneuver a big business.

(Andrew) #9

I attended Roy’s class for about 4 years, having moved to the US from another country and found it to be a revelation. Here was a group of intelligent, thoughtful Adventists who weren’t “of the world” but cared about it and were worldly wise. You didn’t have to leave the non-church part of your bifurcated brain at the door. If Roy wasn’t leading the talk, he was masterfully asking the right questions at the end and guiding the discussion. I have a post-graduate university education and am not short of an opinion but I was smart enough to realize most of the class was more intelligent than me and I was happy to mostly listen.
At that time in my life, without such a class, I probably wouldn’t have attended at all. I thank Roy Branson sincerely for establishing and leading the class.

(Elaine Nelson) #10

Why, oh why is not someone nearer to Branson’s stature in teaching writing and planning the SS lessons?? Instead, for years we have had inane
repetition on the editor’s favorite themes of SdA doctrines, apparently in an effort to pound the doctrines into everyone so deep they will have not a single question.

Who is responsible for this situation and is there no hope for change for the better?

(Dee Roberts) #11

I have found the most engaging Sabbath Schools don’t use the quarterly. Generally, they will look deeply at a topic for a period of several weeks or even months. The leaders of these classes are gifted at bring about engagement and conversation about the topic by providing a variety of perspective using several teachers in the course of the study. The other thing that they do well, is create a structured and safe setting where a variety of questions can be explored and personal opinions shared.

Three Sabbath School have heavily impacted my perspective on how to teach a SS and they are Dr George Knight’s class from the early 1980’s, Roy Branson’s at Sligo, and Ray Tetz’s at Spencerville. All are different, but all require active thoughtful engagement.

(Elaine Nelson) #12

Perhaps Branson or the other excellent teachers could write a manual for the thousands of less-gifted SS teachers on how to TEACH, not lecture; and how to get a discussion going with planned questions. All teachers in training for secular schools are required to have training but in most churches, the teachers are simply randomly picked on qualifications that may have little or nothing to do with the ability to teach.

(Interested Friend) #13

I don’t find a way to ascertain who the interviewer is. If it is Chuck Scriven, I challenge him (or the interviewer) to interview a church leader who does not embrace the same brand of Adventism as does Chuck and his cohorts. Let’s be fair and balanced!

Incidentally, Chuck’s name appears in a recent talk which can be found at the following URL and and after the 22 minute mark.