Two are better than one…for if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up…. And a threefold cord is not quickly broken. Ecclesiastes 4:9-12
Since the time of Tubal-cain, “an instructor of every artificer in brass and iron” (Gen. 4:22), humans have seen the benefit of mixing metals to form better substances. Today we call such substances alloys—materials that have unique properties, often much different than the properties of the original metals from which they are formed. Generally, we consider these new properties to be “improvements” or “enhancements.” This seems, however, to contradict our previous article in this rubric—“Metal Ores and the Purification Process”— where we demonstrated that foreign substances mixed in with metals “make for weak and brittle products” (SB June 2020, p. 407). How can that seeming contradiction be explained?
Why is it that when certain metals are mixed together they make for weaker products, while other metals can be mixed together and result in new materials with beneficial properties? As we shall further explain later, the fundamental difference is that in an alloy the added substance is properly incorporated into the very structure of the host metal rather than simply being alongside of it.
I find that to be a fascinating concept when considered from a spiritual point of view. The mixed multitude within Israel caused much trouble for her; they weakened the nation as a whole, and were never truly a part of her. However, the strength and beauty of the body of believers is realized in her remarkably diverse “mixture,’’ but only as the members live incorporated together in the one life of Jesus Christ. (That two things are mixed together does not necessarily mean they will unite together, though they will certainly have an effect on one another.) The common bond with Christ is the basis for how different saints can and do assist and strengthen one another. “From whom [Christ] the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love” (Eph. 4:16). Let us examine alloys as a tool to help us consider the mutual benefit of saints united in Christ.
Bronze is, perhaps, the alloy with which readers are most familiar. Bronze—the alloy with the oldest tradition—is a mixture of copper and tin. While the Bible makes reference to “brass,” the biblical substance is likely what we call bronze today. Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin; while brass (circa 500 BC) is an alloy of copper and zinc. The presence of tin with copper is what gives a bronze bell the pleasant tone that it has. Also, the higher the tin content in the alloy, the harder the bronze will be. Unfortunately, the increased level of tin also makes the alloy more brittle. Consequently, the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia has a large crack due to excess levels of tin in the bronze. Today, bronze is used throughout various industries, particularly as bushings and bearings, to capitalize on its low level of friction. Bronze’s prominent place in history is due to its numerous qualities—hardness, low friction, good conductor of heat and electricity, very malleable, and resistant to corrosion.
In modern society, however, steel alloys dominate. Steel, an alloy of iron and carbon, is commonly used, in part because of the properties of its main constituent— iron. Iron is abundant, relatively cheap, readily combines with many different substances to form unique alloys, and can be welded, cast, machined, and hardened like no other metal. As good as iron is alone, it is made stronger when alloyed with carbon.
Other fascinating and useful alloys are ALNICO (aluminum, nickel, and cobalt mixture), which is an alloy with superior magnetic properties; NITINOL (nickel and titanium mixture), which is a “shape-memory” alloy used in various medical applications and orthodontics; and Nichrome (nickel and chromium alloy), which is a heat-resistant alloy used in electrical heating elements.
Alloys differ significantly from impure metals, which we considered in our last article. Metals that have impurities in them are weaker than the original metal because the impurities collect in distinct regions or “grains.” Generally speaking, these grains form because the atomic structure of the impurities is such that the impurities do not become part of the host metal’s crystal structure, but are rather ‘alongside’ the crystal structure, creating boundary grains. The mixture, necessarily then, is weak and tends to crack or sheer along those lines of impurities.
In an alloy, however, the added elements are distributed evenly throughout the host metal and become part of the host metal’s crystal structure. Metallurgists can cause this even distribution to occur in the alloy by intensely heating the element until it melts into its liquid form, and then carefully mixing another metal into the molten mass. As the two metals are mixed, the atoms of the minor element are slowly dispersed throughout the material. Careful cooling of the mixture ensures that the crystal structures form properly. In situations where the atoms of the minor element are approximately the same size as the atoms of the host metal, the minor element’s atoms displace the host element’s atoms in the crystal structure. However, when the minor element is much smaller than the host element, it will nicely ‘fit’ into the empty spaces within the crystal structure of the host element. In each of those situations, the atoms of the minor element are incorporated into the crystal structure and few grains or deformations are formed.
Due to the presence of the minor element within the crystal structure of the original element, the new alloy has unique properties. One of the main properties metallurgists desire to find in an alloy is an increase of strength. This new strength is due to the fact that the presence of the minor element makes it more difficult for the crystal lattice of the original element to shift, slide, or bend. Consequently, the new alloy is stronger. In other alloys, the presence of the minor element within the host element gives the new alloy an increased ability to resist corrosion, or an increased ability to conduct heat and electricity, or it makes the new alloy lighter in weight. Metallurgists’ careful combination of metals will determine the particular beneficial properties that the new alloy will have.
When considering alloys and their various properties, I see in them a figure of the biblical truth that true unity is found only as the church is bound together as one in Jesus Christ, and a figure of the mutual benefit of the various members that arises from that union. The basic principle for this mutual benefit rests in the unity God’s people have in their Head, Jesus Christ. Only as we are united in Christ, and as we live out of the same Spirit of Christ, are we of any spiritual benefit to one another (I Cor. 12:4-6). As the minor element and host element are incorporated into one common crystal structure, so the different saints are knit together by the Spirit of Christ into the one body of Christ, with Christ as their Head. When two things are mixed and simply occur alongside each other, there is no strength in that, as pictured in the iron and clay mixture in Daniel 2:43. But when two or more things exist together in such a way that they are one, there is strength and beauty. And that is the truth of Scripture concerning the church, the body of believers—different individuals sharing the one life of the triune God through Jesus Christ. This truth is illustrated and demonstrated in our marriages and in our church life, both as members and as officebearers.
Alloys and their beneficial properties present us with a picture of the ‘completeness’ that a wife brings to her husband. For the Lord God said “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him” (Gen. 2:18). Adam needed a helper. And God provided the perfect helper—perfectly fit for Adam’s needs. The wife is a good aid to her husband as she adds an element of wisdom and provides a good dose of tenderness that is often lacking in the husband. “She openeth her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness” (Prov 31:26). Our beautiful Reformed marriage form (Form for the Confirmation of Marriage Before the Church) points out the blessing of a marriage in Christ when it cites one of the benefits of the institution of the bond of marriage—“that each faithfully assists the other in all things that belong to this life and a better.” The strength of the marriage is found as husband and wife live together and for each other under the yoke of Christ.
Let us also consider the blessed reality that God has knit together believers into one holy, catholic church— the body of Christ. God knits many different members together—members with diverse gifts—into the one body of Christ (I Cor. 12). Whether we are Dutch or Chinese, rich or poor, elderly or young, afflicted with few or with many sicknesses, we are needed in the church of Jesus Christ. God has given each of us not only a place in His church but also gifts for the benefit of the church. We are called to use those gifts (meekness, steadfastness, longsuffering, etc.) for the advantage and salvation of the other members.
What a marvelous work of God that, in joining us together, He “maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love” (Eph. 4:16). By the grace of God in us, we bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2) and provoke one another unto love and good works (Heb. 10:24). With the Word we seek to restore, in a spirit of meekness, a brother who has been overtaken in a fault (Gal. 6:1) and we exhort, comfort, and charge every one to walk worthy of God (I Thess. 2:11-12). At other times, the Spirit uses us as the balm of Gilead to another as we pray for one another (James 5:16), comfort and edify one another (I Thess. 5:11), and forgive one another (Col. 3:13). As we use our gifts for the advantage and salvation of the other members of the body of Christ, we serve “to the edification of the brethren” (Belgic Confession, Art. 28). What a wonder work of God, who knits us together and uses us for the assistance and strengthening of fellow members as we together traverse our difficult pilgrim’s journey!
Alloys and their beneficial properties picture to us how the church is benefited by the spiritual gifts of others. This would include the leaders of the church. An elder or minister may be characterized by wisdom to rule the congregation (I Tim. 3:2-5), but he is benefited by the unique experiences, perspectives, and wisdom of a multitude of counselors found in the consistory (Prov. 11:14). The church fathers recognized the wisdom of broadening the group for difficult and weighty matters, such as before proceeding in discipline of a member or before suspending an officebearer. In such cases, the consistory must seek advice from an additional group of men—the neighboring consistory (Church Order, Arts. 76, 77, and 79). So at a time of year when broader assemblies gather as classes to discuss various ecclesiastical matters, may we give thanks to God for the gift of a multitude of counselors.
The example of the mixture of elements in an alloy affords us an opportunity to contemplate how, just as one element’s properties are enhanced by the presence of another element that is mixed with it, so the Bible describes many examples of how God uses fellow saints to be of benefit to each other, whether as spouses in marriage, as members together of the church, or as leaders of the church within a consistory. May we learn to view fellow saints as “necessary” to the well-being of the body of Christ (I Cor. 12:22) and truly learn to esteem others better than ourselves.
Praise be to God for the gift of the other members of the church and for His marvelous work of uniting us into one, in Christ, for the edification of one another and the glory of His name!