Sunday, 15 February 2009
The Nicolaitans: Who Were They? Who Are They?
You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” (Revelation 2:6)
Over the years in reading the Book of Revelation, I’ve often pondered the question of just who those Nicolaitans were that Jesus alludes to in Revelation 2:6 and again in verse 15. Were they just a bunch of heretics from the early church? If so, what was it that made them heretics? Is there something we can learn from them? Perhaps more importantly, is it possible that the spirit of the Nicolaitans lives on in many of our Christian churches today?
First of all, what does church history tell us about them? There are many scholars who claim that the Nicolaitans were followers of Nicolas, one of the deacons listed in Acts 6:5. Apparently, according to Irenaeus, one of the key teachings of Nicolas was that “the flesh must be abused,” implying that the body must be kept under control. Supposedly the Nicolaitans misinterpreted, or changed his teaching, to mean that a person could live any way they wanted to and that anything to do with the flesh was really inconsequential and ultimately of no concern at all. This led to the belief by the Nicolaitans that people could live in any fashion they wanted to, regardless of how wicked or immoral a lifestyle that choice was. This seems to be what several of the early church fathers have said, however according to several modern day scholars, there is really not much more information available. Ultimately, any association of Nicolas to the Nicolaitans is mostly filled with speculation.
There is another school of thought on who the Nicolaitans were. To see this, we must first look at the etymology of the word “Nicolaitans.” It comes from two Greek words, “Nike” (or “Nikos”) and “Laios” (or “Laos”). The first word (Nike) means to conquer, subdue, or overcome. The second word (Laios) means a body of people, or the common people. When we put these two words together, we arrive at a definition of Nicolaitans as “conquerors of the common people.”
Then, in Revelation 2:14-15, the Nicolaitans are spoken of in the same breath as the teaching of Balaam. Now I’m less of a Hebrew scholar than a Greek scholar, but as I understand it, the word “Balaam” also comes from two words; “beli” which means “conqueror”, and “haam” which means “the people.” Put together, Balaam seems to be the Hebrew equivalent of the Greek Nicolaitan, or “conqueror of the people.”
If we look at it this way, is it possible that the Nicolaitans were people within the body of believers in Ephesus and Pergamum who came to have a major controlling influence among the people? By virtue of their name, were they people who positioned themselves above the common people and who claimed some sort of authority over them? Certainly if we look at the etymology of the word “Nicolaitans” this does seem likely.
While Balaam did not directly curse the people as Balak requested (see Numbers 22-25), somehow he did manage to turn the Israelites away from what God had in mind for them. We see this in Numbers 31:16, “They [the Midianite women] were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and were the means of turning the Israelites away from the Lord in what happened at Peor so that a plague struck the Lord’s people.” What happened at Peor? It was there that the Israelites became involved with the Moabites (Num. 25: 1-3; Rev.2: 14), the very thing the God told them not to do, which ultimately lead to the death of 24,000 people (Numbers 25:9). The invasion of Moab that King Balak feared never happened, but the Israelites were still conquered.
It is interesting to note that there is yet another word that comes out of the Greek word “Nicolaitan,” and that is our word “laity.” While the word originally simply meant “people,” as early as the second century it had already come to mean those people that are not ordained to the ministry. Therefore, for those who use the word “laity,” they must believe in a distinction (or hierarchy) in the body of Christ between the professional clergy and the average common people. According to the so-called “Early Church Fathers,” by the second century the clergy system was already established with bishops in various churches. Unfortunately there is no New Testament support for either “laity” or “clergy.” On the other hand, the New Testament does teach of a priesthood of all believers equally (eg. 1 Peter 2: 5,9) and that the only High Priest (clergy) that any of us have is Christ alone (eg. Hebrews 7).
The implication of those who support a clergy system is that the common people cannot possibly hear from God on their own, so they need a professional to do so for them. It is an Old Testament mindset, not unlike the people telling Moses “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die” (Exodus 20:19). The truth, however, for the Christian is found in 1 John 2: 26-27, “I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray. As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit – just as it has taught you, remain in him.”
Whose anointing teaches you and me? Does a minister, pastor, or priest’s personal anointing teach us? No, because each of their personal anointing can teach only them individually. So then whose anointing teaches you and me? It is our own personal anointing that each of us receives the very minute that we receive Christ that teaches us, just as it teaches everyone else individually. Anyone who says different we are to count among “those who are trying to lead us astray.”
It would seem very likely that the whole clergy system had its roots in the Nicolaitans. Whether or not it is said in so many words, churches with a clergy system (minister, pastor, priest, etc) advocate the elevation of professional “ministers” over common people. Churches with a clergy system are churches that (like our earlier Nicolaitan definition) conquer and subdue the common people. Clergy influence the common people and claim all sorts of authority over them.
A great example is a fellow named Diotrephes. 3 John 9-10 says, “I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will have nothing to do with us. So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, gossiping maliciously about us. Not satisfied with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.” Diotrephes had a Nicolaitan spirit about him. He elevated himself and oppressed the common people. He set himself up as THE Minister, THE Pastor, THE Priest. In so doing he conquered and subdued the common people. Churches that have clergy systems today are no different; they also have a Nicolaitan spirit about them.
Our risen Lord said to the church in Ephesus, “But you have this in your favour: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” Does this mean that Jesus is saying that He hates the clergy systems that have crept into the churches? Yes, I think He’s saying exactly that. Please notice, He’s not saying that he hates the people that have become clergy; rather He’s saying that He hates the clergy systems. It’s the proverbial “love the sinner, hate the sin” relationship.
To sum up, anything that causes the church to function in a way contrary to what God intended is a Nicolaitan spirit that Christ Jesus hates. The sin of Balaam led to the Israelites disobeying God by mingling with the surrounding nations through idolatry. The Nicolaitans likewise disobeyed God by creating a clergy system in the church through which the few essentially conquered the many. Either way, the problem is the same. The problem is the elevating of the flesh over the walking in the Spirit. The problem is that, instead of the fathers feeding the children (as it’s supposed to be), it is the children who are feeding the fathers. The problem is ultimately failing to obey God and walking instead according to our own carnal desires. Anytime when this happens, we have also become Nicolaitans.
Lord, help us to see the truth in this. Lord, help us to walk in humble obedience. Amen.
“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelation 2:7).