NICOLAITANS (nĭk'ō-lā'ĭ-tănz, Gr. Nikolaitai). A group of persons whose works both the church at Ephesus and our Lord hated (Rev.2.6) and whose doctrine was held by some in the Pergamum church (Rev.2.15). Nothing else is surely known about them, but some have guessed that they were the followers of Nicolas of Antioch, one of the first so-called deacons (Acts.6.5), but there is no evidence for this. Their doctrine was similar to that of Balaam, through whose influence the Israelites ate things sacrificed to idols and committed fornication (Rev.2.14-Rev.2.15). A sect of Nicolaitans existed among the Gnostics in the third century, as is known from church fathers of the time (Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian). It probably had its origin in the group condemned in Revelation.
Followers of one Nicolaus, they formed a sect in the early church at Ephesus and Pergamum and were condemned by John in Revelation 2:6, 15. They appear to have been a heretical group who retained the pagan practices of idolatry and immorality, which were contrary to Christian thought and conduct. Virtually nothing is known about these sectaries beyond John's references to them. Their works are hated and rejected, but not described, in the letter to Ephesus, while in Pergamum their teachings are held in like manner to those of Balaam (Num. 24:1-25; 31:16). Irenaeus asserts that this sect was founded by that Nicolaus who was the proselyte from Antioch, one of the seven appointed by the apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 6:5); but the weight of recent scholarship seems to be against this view. The sect disappeared after the second century, although in the Middle Ages
the term was sometimes applied to married priests by those who were staunch supporters of clerical celibacy.
NICOLAITANS nĭk’ ə lā ə tənz
). A term appearing in the Revelation (2:6
) 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
). 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
) 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
In the letter to the church at Pergamum the Nicolaitans were associated closely with those people who held the teaching of Balaam. This may have been a play on words. “Nicolaitans” could have been derived from two Gr. words, nikan, which meant “to conquer” and laos, which meant “people.” Likewise Balaam could be derived from two Heb. words, bela which meant “to conquer” and ha’am, which meant “people.” Nicolaus and Balaam would then be the Gr. and Heb. forms of the same name, descriptive in each instance of an evil teacher who had influence over the people and brought them into bondage to heresy.
A story is recorded of the seduction of the Israelites into immoral and idolatrous unions wth the women of Moab (Num 25:1-5). Had this situation not been checked, Israel would have been destroyed as a nation. Numbers 31:16 attributed the success of this seduction of God’s people to the evil influence of a prophet named Balaam who advised Balak, king of Moab, to follow such a course of action. Balaam became, therefore, in Heb. history a symbol of an evil man who led God’s people into immorality and sin.
The letter to the church at Pergamum specifically charged them with having seduced people into eating meat offered to idols and into acts of fornication. The decree of the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:28, 29) had laid down also two specific conditions upon which Gentiles were to be admitted into Christian fellowship: they were to abstain from things offered to idols and from fornication. These were the very regulations which the Nicolaitans violated.
They were a people who used Christian liberty as an occasion for the flesh, against such Paul warned (Gal 5:13). The enticement to such a course of action was the pagan society in which Christians lived where eating meat offered to idols was common. Sex relations outside marriage were completely acceptable in such a society. The Nicolaitans attempted to establish a compromise with the pagan society of the Graeco-Roman world that surrounded them. The people most susceptible to such teaching were, no doubt, the upper classes who stood to lose the most by a separation from the culture to which they had belonged before conversion.
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.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
1. The Sect:
A sect or party of evil influence in early Christianity, especially in the 7 churches of Asia. Their doctrine was similar to that of Balaam, "who taught Balak to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit fornication" (Re 2:14,15). Their practices were strongly condemned by John, who praised the church in Ephesus for "hating their works" (Re 2:6), and blamed the church in Pergamum for accepting in some measure their teaching (Re 2:15). Except that reference is probably made to their influence in the church at Thyatira also, where their leader was "the woman Jezebel, who calleth herself a prophetess" (Re 2:20; compare Re 2:14), no further direct information regarding them is given in Scripture.
Reference to them is frequent in post-apostolic literature. According to Irenaeus (Adv. Haer., i.26,3; iii.10,7), followed by Hippolytus (Philos., vii.36), they were founded by Nicolaus, the proselyte of Antioch, who was one of the seven chosen to serve at the tables (Ac 6:5). Irenaeus, as also Clement of Alexandria (Strom., ii.20), Tertullian and others, unite in condemning their practices in terms similar to those of John; and reference is also made to their Gnostic tendencies. In explanation of the apparent incongruity of such an immoral sect being founded by one of "good report, full of the Spirit and of wisdom" (compare Ac 6:3), Simcox argues that their lapse may have been due to reaction from original principles of a too rigid asceticism. A theory, started in comparatively modern times, and based in part on the similarity of meaning of the Greek "Nikolaus," and the Hebrew "Balaam," puts forward the view that the two sects referred to under these names were in reality identical. Yet if this were so, it would not have been necessary for John to designate them separately.
3. Nicolaitan Controversy:
The problem underlying the Nicolaitan controversy, though so little direct mention is made of it in Scripture, was in reality most important, and concerned the whole relation of Christianity to paganism and its usages. The Nicolaitans disobeyed the command issued to the Gentilechurches, by the apostolic council held at Jerusalem in 49-50 AD, that they should refrain from the eating of "things sacrificed to idols" (Ac 15:29). Such a restriction, though seemingly hard, in that it prevented the Christian communities from joining in public festivals, and so brought upon them suspicion and dislike, was yet necessary to prevent a return to a pagan laxity of morals. To this danger the Nicolaitans were themselves a glaring witness, and therefore John was justified in condemning them. In writing to the Corinthians, Paul gives warning against the same evil practices, basing his arguments on consideration for the weaker brethren (compare 1Co 8).
Simcox, "Revelation" in the Cambridge Bible; H. Cowan in Hastings, Dictionary of the Bible (five volumes), article "Nicolaitans"; H.B. Swete, The Apocalypse of John, lxx ff, 27, 28, 37.