Sunday, 15 February 2009

The Nicolaitans: Who Were They? Who Are They?

Jesus said, “But you have this in your favour:
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.

So why would Jesus hate the Nicolaitan clergy systems that have long since become so prevalent in the church? I believe that the answer is because these systems have created a two-tier form of Christianity. They have elevated a minority of “professional” people over the “common” people. They have conquered and subdued the common people to such an extent that the Body of Christ no longer functions like Christ intended His body to function. The common people have become lethargic spectators and often cannot seem to even hear the Holy Spirit for themselves. They have caused the common people to think that only the clergy can serve God and that ministry is their job alone. The priesthood of believers that God intended for the church has instead become only the priesthood of the clergy.

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).


  1. The thoughts expressed here address precisely the situations many of us are facing today. Thank you for the insights. I am happy to see the other articles on the side, emphasising loving relationships, because the church commended for hating the teachings of the Nicolaitans was also chastised for losing its first love. We need to guard and cherish our love for Christ and one another, even as we stand on guard against the dangers of hierarchical religion.

  2. But apart from the privacy priesthood of all believers,I think God has ordained the following for the welfare of the Body of Christ.

    "And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues" ( I Cor 12:28).

    Ephesians 4:11 It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers,

  3. Sreedhar,

    Yes, "God has ordained" in the sense that He gave (apostles, prophets, etc). However, the way He did so was as "giftings," NOT "offices." Man, in his wisdom (tongue in cheek), turned them into offices, and thus the Nicolaitan spirit that Jesus spoke against.

    Thanks for the comment.

  4. Very interresting evaluation of the meaning of Nicolations in Revelation. It's something I've always wondered about.

  5. Sreedhar, the point of Ephesians 4:11 is that those with those gifts equip others for the work of service, or ministry to use common authoritarian church parlance. It seems that those with those gifts aren't to be in charge but to be servants to others so they can do the work of Christ. I don't detect a superior vs inferior sense in those passages.

    As for the article, it's thought provoking but conjecture. The conclusion does seem to be somewhat consistent with the rest of scripture, however.

    1. Dan, though we often speak of "equip others for the work of service," I believe the Nicolaitan spirit of most institutional systems actually causes a form of lethargy of service. This in turn, ironically, suppresses those very gifts in others whom the same institutional church system claims to equip.

      Thanks for the comment.

  6. Balaam means Bli Am or man without a people.

    Balaam was considered to be a prophetic hired gun who would curse anyone for enough money.

    Beli does not mean conquer in Hebrew. Perhaps you are thinking of the Latin Bellus meaning war?

    1. Thanks, Michael.

      As I confessed above, "I am less of a Hebrew scholar than a Greek scholar." I will have to double check my sources.

      Peace & Blessings :)

  7. From Wade (via Google+)
    Thank you for writing this. Now I don't have too. I reached similar conclusions in my own I recent study. Consider also that the Nicolaitans lived where Satan has his throne, in Pergamum the Northern-most of the seven churches in Asia Minor, where Paul was kept, by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word. Pergamum is close to the border of Bithynia where the Spirit of Jesus would not allow Paul to enter. Previous to the Roman conquest this same area was the Kingdom of the Nicomedes. And the Ist and 3rd Nicaen councils were held in this area, in Nice, where the Roman Catholic Church took power. Also follow the history of the four Popes called Nicolas. Nice clues, but there are more.

  8. Cool bananas. I have already thought about church as an institution to control, rather then set free.

  9. Thanks for insight

  10. "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."

    I agree with your article, but I have difficulty with the part above. Now I am a strong advocate that we need to go to God and not man for understanding scripture. And I am deeply angered that I have never heard us directed to God and not man for spiritual direction in church. Jesus clearly said He would leave the Holy Spirit with us who would teach is in all things. And when I have gone to church leaders with questions referring to a tugging in my spirit that something was not right, I was just told it was right and that all the leaders agreed it was right and basically I was to ignore and completely disregard the tugging in my spirit (quench the Spirit). Now that I have woken up, I find this appalling.

    But this being said, I still have difficulty understanding what you are saying in the above passage. Surely the minister has an anointing to teach us, right? He is the shepherd over the flock, right? He does answer to God for what he is teaching us, right? What am I missing here?

    I believe we should search out the scriptures and seek God regarding all things we are taught (regardless of who teaches them). But I still recognize an anointing on pastors (some more than others).

    Can you help clarify what you are saying. Again, I really like your post. Thank you.

  11. From Ransom (via Facebook)
    "This article tells half of the story. The other half is they were classic gnostics who were hedonists. they divorced body from spirit, so the body would live in hedonism while the spirit is still perfectly saved."