Don't do as the Nicolaitans!
OK, but what does that even mean? Since the Bible doesn't say much, where do we go to find out more about these people we are not supposed to emulate? Starting with the study notes in my NIV, the comments say this:
Nicolaitans. A heretical sect within the church that had worked out a compromise with the pagan society. They apparently taught that spiritual liberty gave them sufficient leeway to practice idolatry and immorality. Tradition identifies them with Nicolas, the proselyte of Antioch who was one of the first seven deacons in the Jerusalem church (Acts 6:5), though the evidence is merely circumstancial. A similar group at Pergamum held the teaching of Balaam (vv. 14-15), and some at Thyatira were followers of the woman Jezebel (v. 20). From their heretical tendencies it would appear that all three were Nicolaitans.
But, what do we do - or not do?
So, here is what amounts to what we hope is a reasonable guess, based on some historical data, that tells us who they are, but not what they do. Wanting more, we kept looking and found this article on the site at Sparkling Gems from the Greek:
Who Were the Nicolaitans, And What Was Their Doctrine and Deeds?
Jesus was proud of the church of Ephesus for their "hatred" of the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which He also "hated." The word "hate" is a strong word, so let's see exactly what it means. It comes from the Greek word miseo, which means to hate, to abhor, or to find utterly repulsive. It describes a person who has a deep-seated animosity, who is antagonistic to something he finds to be completely objectionable. He not only loathes that object, but rejects it entirely. This is not just a case of dislike; it is a case of actual hatred.
The thing Jesus hated about them was their "deeds." The word "deeds" is the Greek word erga, which means works. However, this word is so all-encompassing that it pictures all the deeds and behavior of the Nicolaitans - including their actions, beliefs, conduct, and everything else connected to them.
The name "Nicolaitans" is derived from the Greek word nikolaos, a compound of the words nikos and laos. The word nikos is the Greek word that means to conquer or to subdue. The word laos is the Greek word for the people. It is also where we get the word laity. When these two words are compounded into one, they form the name Nicolas, which literally means one who conquers and subdues the people. It seems to suggest that the Nicolaitans were somehow conquering and subduing the people.
So, this site says the Nicolaitans were likely on the bad side, conquering people and, supposedly, forcing people to lean their way. But what do they do that is wrong?
Another site at Bible Gateway gives evidence from several men who either accused Nicolas or defended him:
A term appearing in the Revelation (2:6, 15) describing members of Christian congregations who held a doctrine that the Lord hated. Irenaeus said that they were followers of Nicolaus of Antioch, a proselyte who was among the seven men chosen to serve the Jerusalem congregation (Acts 6:5), who had forsaken true Christian doctrine; he said they lived in unrestrained indulgence (Against Heresies
I; 26:3). Hippolytus confirmed this by noting that Nicolaus left correct doctrine and had the habit of indifference as to what a man ate and as to how he lived (Refutation of Heresies
7:24). The Apostolic Constitutions
(6:8) described them as "shameless in uncleanness." Although Clement of Alexandria defended Nicolaus by insisting that his followers had misunderstood him, he observed that the Nicolaitans abandoned themselves to pleasures like goats in a life of shameless self-indulgence (The Miscellianes
However, a telling paragraph at the end of the article at Bible Gateway indicates there are still many ways to interpret the facts:
It may be that the doctrine of the Nicolaitans was dualistic. They prob. reasoned that the human body was evil anyway and only the spirit was good. A Christian, therefore, could do whatever he desired with his body because it had no importance. The spirit, on the other hand, was the recipient of grace which meant that grace and forgiveness were his no matter what he did. They were those ready to compromise with the world. They were judged by the author of Revelation to be most dangerous because the result of their teaching would have conformed Christianity to the world rather than have Christianity change the world. Eusebius indicated that this sect did not last very long, and in all probability the only knowledge of their teaching that is possible will be found in the slight references to them in Revelation.
So, according to Eusebius, this sect did not last very long. However, the concepts and teaching of this Nicolas as he moved freely between paganism, Judaism, and then Christianity seem to have stayed with us. Whether you are familiar with the concept or not, the influence of paganism is very apparent in our modern church traditions and customs (see Pagan Christianity? for the shocking evidence of this that even you will believe).
Jesus knew the modern "us", even in the days of John
Falling right in line with what Jesus told John in the Revelation about the church in Ephesus, "you have lost your first love" (Revelation 2:4
4Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first.
), we stay on the wrong track with no qualms or twinges of conscience. What love did we lose? How about staying in the will of God? Remember, in Luke 18:8
8I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?
Jesus was worried about finding any faith on the earth. Of course, He was looking for faith in God, not faith in paganism or compromise with the world.
And, there are other views
Just so we don't lose sight of the whole possible picture, a site at Church of the Great God makes the valid point that the name Nicolaos mentioned in the Bible may have nothing to do with the sect called Nicolaitans, and rightly says that the name can even have a positive meaning:
First, Nicolaos may have nothing to do with Nicolaitan doctrine. Not every name in the Bible is significant spiritually. For instance, Luke means "white," and any spiritual connotation it has to him or his work is pure conjecture. Many biblical names are simple common names within the culture and time in which the person lived.
Second, the meaning of Nicolaos is not necessarily negative. Although its natural connotation is "one who conquers the people," it can have a positive, possessive sense: "the people's conqueror," that is, a champion of the people, one who fights for the people's best interests. It may refer to a tyrant or despot, but it can just as easily speak of a popular hero.
So, we can't just assume that the opinions we see are always correct just because it is convenient that some of them see things our way. The only thing we do know for sure is that Jesus hates the things practiced by the Nicolaitans.
But, what does He hate?
Well, this describes the intensity of the hate that Jesus feels, and who it was that was doing what He hated, but says nothing definite about what the actual deeds were. We really need more to know what to avoid.
The same site also gives a little background on Nicolas, the "founder" of the Nicolaitans:
Acts 6:5 tells us that this Nicolas was "a proselyte of Antioch." The fact that he was a proselyte tells us that he was not born a Jew but had converted from paganism to Judaism. Then he experienced a second conversion, this time turning from Judaism to Christianity. From this information, we know these facts about Nicolas of Antioch:
- He came from paganism and had deep pagan roots, very much unlike the other six deacons who came from a pure Hebrew line. Nicolas' pagan background meant that he had previously been immersed in the activities of the occult.
- He was not afraid of taking an opposing position, evidenced by his ability to change religions twice. Converting to Judaism would have estranged him from his pagan family and friends. It would seem to indicate that he was not impressed or concerned about the opinions of other people.
- He was a free thinker and very open to embracing new ideas and concepts. Judaism was very different from the pagan and occult world in which he had been raised. For him to shift from paganism to Judaism reveals that he was very liberal in his thinking, for most pagans were offended by Judaism. He was obviously not afraid to entertain or embrace new ways of thinking.
- When he converted to Christ, it was at least the second time he had converted from one religion to another. We don't know if, or how many times, he shifted from one form of paganism to another before he became a Jewish proselyte. His ability to easily change religious "hats" implies that he was not afraid to switch direction in midstream and go a totally different direction.
According to the writings of the Early Church leaders, Nicolas taught a doctrine of compromise, implying that total separation between Christianity and the practice of occult paganism was not essential. From Early Church records, it seems apparent that this Nicolas of Antioch was so immersed in occultism, Judaism, and Christianity that he had a stomach for all of it. He had no problem intermingling these belief systems in various concoctions and saw no reason why believers couldn't continue to fellowship with those still immersed in the black magic of the Roman empire and its countless mystery cults.
OK, mixing bad and good things together is bad...
This reference to the "Early Church leaders" gives us another place to look. You can read more on this first site by going to Sparkling Gems from the Greek, but this gives us a clue as to why Jesus would hate the practices of the Nicolaitans. Anything that mixes paganism and Christianity would be bad (Deuteronomy 12:3-4,30-31
3 Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and burn their Asherah poles in the fire; cut down the idols of their gods and wipe out their names from those places. 4 You must not worship the LORD your God in their way. (Deut 12:3-4)
30 and after they have been destroyed before you, be careful not to be ensnared by inquiring about their gods, saying, "How do these nations serve their gods? We will do the same." 31 You must not worship the Lord your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the Lord hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods. (Deut 12:30-31)
, Deuteronomy 18:9
9 When you enter the land the LORD your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there.
, and Jeremiah 10:2
2 This is what the LORD says: "Do not learn the ways of the nations or be terrified by signs in the heavens, though the nations are terrified by them.
You know, minor pagan practices like Sunday worship instead of the Sabbath, celebrating Easter, Christmas, and eating unclean foods. Remember Galatians 5:9
9A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.
? That's where the aforementioned "Church Leaders" have led us, bringing us to the "churches" of today, doing exactly this kind of mixing of paganism and Christianity, instead of keeping pure the one "ecclesia" of Jesus.
Let's broaden our view
So, let's get some more sources to make sure we are not mired in a small view. Doing a Google search for "early church fathers and Nicolaitans", we see a listing for Nicolaism at Wikipedia which listed four "early church fathers" (Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Epiphanius, and Theodoret) as having mentions of the Nicolaitans, saying that Nicolas was the author of the heresy and the sect.
Going to each of the links provided, none of these four pages even include the name Nicolas (actually, the search was for "Nicol", so I didn't miss something because of different spellings), so more research is required to get their information. However, further down on the Wikipedia page on Nicolaism (link above), we read of a Bishop Isidore of Seville, whom the site called the last Western Church Father. Isodore evidently wrote a book in 636 A.D. titled "The Church and sects", in which he wrote this:
The Nicolaites (Nicolaita) are so called from Nicolas, deacon of the church of Jerusalem, who, along with Stephen and the others, was ordained by Peter. He abandoned his wife because of her beauty, so that whoever wanted to might enjoy her; the practice turned into debauchery, with partners being exchanged in turn. Jesus condemns them in the Apocalypse, saying (2:6): 'But this thou hast, that thou hates the deeds of the Nicolaites.' "
We don't share our wives, but...
This gives us a little insight into Nicolas' view on marriage, and implies that his views were made known to the point where at least some people began to think this kind of action was acceptable enough to incite debauchery. But, it did not stop there. This Wikipedia page includes a comment by John Henry Blunt, ordained 19th-century priest eventually becoming a vicar. In the section titled Insight into Church History we read:
John Henry Blunt points out that the Bible condemns the false teachings, and the use of a name to describe a group "shows that there was a distinct heretical party which held the doctrine." The letters which Jesus dictates for the churches in Revelation 2 "show that these heretics had neither formally separated themselves from the Church nor had been excommunicated."
Do we condemn sin...?
So, here we see that, though the practice was known at the time, those who practiced it were not removed from the church as heretical. Since this was all happening while the Apostles were still spreading the Gospel, we begin to understand why John received the Revelation and wrote about the message to the churches in chapters 2 and 3. No one was stopping it.
There is some speculation that this heresy and "freedom" felt by some in the Corinthian church was the subject of Paul's statement of concern in 1 Corinthians 6:12-13
12 "I have the right to do anything," you say - but not everything is beneficial. "I have the right to do anything" - but I will not be mastered by anything. 13 You say, "Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both."" The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.
, subtitled Sexual Immorality. In fact, this could even include the condemnation of one member of that church, and the admonishment of the approving congregation, back in 1 Corinthians 5:5:
1It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate: A man is sleeping with his father's wife. 2And you are proud! Shouldn't you rather have gone into mourning and have put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this? 3For my part, even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. As one who is present with you in this way, I have already passed judgment in the name of our Lord Jesus on the one who has been doing this. 4So when you are assembled and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, 5hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.
If we don't disapprove, we approve (Matthew 12:30
30Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.
If this was a result of the influence of the Nicolaitans, without being dogmatic about it, we can see that there were some things going on in the "churches" of the day of which Jesus Himself did not approve. They were obviously not all of the one "ecclesia" of Christ, and it seems He let the church know of His disapproval in no uncertain terms through the Apostle John in his Revelation. However, without getting more details about what the Nicolaitans were actually doing, everyone is merely guessing about what detestable actions are included.
More points of view...
The Wikipedia site continues with references to Interpretations from various ancient authors on the subject, but they tend to confirm what we have already seen. They cite some statements by the early church fathers as to some specific, abhorrent practices of the Nicolaitans, including some beliefs of John Blunt (whom we mentioned above):
A common view holds that the Nicolaitans held the antinomian heresy of 1 Corinthians 6, although this has not been proved. One scholar who espouses this interpretation, John Henry Blunt, maintains that the comparison between the Nicolaitans and Balaam "proves that the fornication spoken of is not that crime under ordinary circumstances, but fornication connected with religious rites". Blunt points out that the Hebrews had a long history of preaching against or alternatively using cult prostitutes (Genesis 38:21-22; Deuteronomy 23:17-8; 1 Kings 14:24, 15:12, 22:46; 2 Kings 23:7; Ezekiel 16:16; Hosea 4:14). He also points out that the early Christians lived in a pagan culture where the worship of Aphrodite included hierodoule who engaged in ritual prostitution in her shrines and temples, and that the Dionysian Mysteries used intoxicants and other trance-inducing techniques to remove inhibitions and social constraints of believers (regardless of class or gender) to enter into an animalistic state of mind.
Blunt holds that the Nicolaitans either believed that the command against ritual sex was part of the Mosaic law (from which they had been freed by Jesus Christ) and it was licit for them, or that they went too far during Christian "love-feasts". Blunt sees echoes of this behavior in the admonishments which Paul gives the Corinthians, though he does not name them as such. Blunt also believes that similar echoes can be found in the admonishments of Jude 4-16 (which invokes both "Balaam's error" and "love feasts") and 2 Peter 2:2-21 (which repeats much of Jude's statements, including invoking Balaam).
Note the first sentence of the second paragraph in the box above. That is one of the reasons for the results of our postmodernistic view that the Law of Moses no longer applies to Christians today. If the law does not apply to us Gentiles, then why can't we be like the Nicolaitans and still be saved? Also, remember that Paul was chastising the Corinthian church (1 Corinthians 5) for violating a law from Leviticus 18. That was part of the Law of Moses, but definitely applied to the Gentiles. Picking and choosing as we wish will result in different viewpoints - the very cause of the number of denominations today.
Notes and references are given on the Wikipedia site if you wish to investigate further.
When you look at what we have found to this point, you get the feeling that there was some paganism and debauchery going on in the first-century church like that we see in 1 Corinthians 5 and 6. We refer to those who caused it, or something similar, as Nicolaitans. Those responsible for allowing this to continue without the slightest resistance we call the "church". Combine that with the mingling of "approved" pagan practices with the Gospel of the Lord, and you wind up with a melting pot of bad and good that we have never cleaned up. In fact, many (most?) pastors defend their actions as being Godly, even when they violate the direct word of the Bible.
Who are today's Nicolaitans?
These practices were so bad 1900 years ago when John was on the Isle of Patmos that he received a direct "phone call" from the Lord calling attention to the way He felt about those detestable practices. We have had the message right in front of us since then, but things actually appear to be getting worse instead of better. How do we identify the Nicolaitans of today? Once we recognize them, how do we put a stop to their practices?
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