The Doctrine of the Nicolaitans

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In Revelation 2:6, and 2:15, it is stated that God hates the Doctrine of the Nicolaitans. What is that doctrine? We will quote a number of sources on the Doctrine of the Nicolaitans. First, the SDA Bible Dictionary:

"The doctrine of the Nicolaitans appears to have been a form of antinomianism (see SDACom 7:957). Nicolaitans of the 2d cent. seem to have continued and extended the views of the 1st-cent. adherents, holding to the freedom of the flesh, and teaching that the deeds of the flesh had no effect upon the health of the soul and consequently no relation to salvation." SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 771.

Definition of antinomian: a believer in the doctrine that faith alone, not obedience to the moral law, is necessary for salvation." Websters NewWorld Dictionary.

This is precisely what New Movement Seventh-day Adventists (Selected Messages, vol. 1, 204-205), teach. Now for further delineation of the Doctrine of the Nicolaitans: The part of the Doctrine of the Nicolaitans that New Movement Seventh-day Adventists are guilty of embracing is:

According to the source entitled "The Nicolaitans by Al Maxey:

"None of the earlier church writers (or later ones, for that matter) have anything good to say about the beliefs or practices of this group. The Constitutions of the Holy Apostles states that 'those who are falsely called Nicolaitans, are impudent in uncleanness....' Tertullian (with regard to marriage) says, 'The Nicolaitans, in their maintenance of lust and luxury, destroy the happiness of sanctity.' Irenaeus writes, 'they lead lives of unrestrained indulgence,' and teach 'it is a matter of indifference to practice adultery, and to eat things sacrificed to idols.' Ignatius brands them as 'lovers of pleasure, and given to slanderous speeches.' He also says that they 'affirm that unlawful unions are a good thing, and place the highest happiness in pleasure.
A question which comes immediately to mind at this point is: How could a group of individuals in the early church hold to such beliefs and practices and still profess to be followers of Jesus Christ?! Would they not see the inconsistency? The answer apparently is that, like Balaam, they were self-deceived and self-deluded. This caused them to gloss over their obvious wickedness, and to dress it up so as to make it more acceptable to both themselves and those around them. Contributing to this state of self-deception is the fact that they may also have been misinterpreting a passage from one of the epistles of Paul--'All things are lawful for me' (1 Cor. 6:12).....
The Nicolaitans, having possibly misunderstood this and other related passages....or perhaps having intentionally perverted them.....declared themselves free in Christ to do as they pleased, regardless of who it hurt or who was offended. This even included committing acts of immorality! After all, hadn't Paul said, 'All things are lawful for me'?
This may all seem rather absurd to us, even hard to believe, yet one won't have a great deal of difficulty finding those in the Lord's church today who, at least in principle if not in fact, hold to these same Nicolaitan beliefs! These are those who see nothing wrong with a certain amount of compromise with the world about them, with becoming more and more worldly in nature and practice, while still claiming to be faithful disciples of Christ! Such compromise is nothing short of that ancient Nicolaitan heresy raising its ugly head in a modern setting.....
In the same way, our salvation in Christ, and our faith, is not truly demonstrated to others or made stronger by trying to prove that we can wallow in the world [SIN] and still come away appearing to be clean! Rather, it is displayed by rejecting the activities of the world, and by living n such a way that we might be presented to the Bridegroom as a 'pure virgin'" (II Cor. 11:2). End Reference by Al Maxey.

Omega Ministry Commentary: Go to my WebSite (Those of you who have access to the Internet) and read the two articles on Celebrationis, to find that in some of these churches practicing such charismata, they are engaging in wife-swapping. Just as there are all degrees of commandment-breaking, so there are all degrees of practicing the Doctrine of the Nicolaitans, without practicing every element of it. However, I will be quick to add, that those, such as New Movement Seventh-day Adventists, who teach that it is impossible to keep the commandments of God by His enabling grace and inner presence, are guilty of violating all the base Doctrines of the Nicolaitans, because they teach in principle that it is impossible not to sin! I am not suggesting that New Movement Adventists engage all that is mentioned as part of the Doctrine of the Nicolaitans, but they might as well, because they teach others that commandment keeping that prohibits such acts is impossible. Thus, in principle, they teach others to do such abominations with impunity, because they say one can be saved while imbibing all manner of sinfulness, by only believing. This is, in essence, the doctrine of the Nicolaitans. There are many different sects and factions of "professing Christianity" that indulge one or more of these violations.
Christ's teachings on the principles of the Law, would indicate that it is just as bad to teach that it is impossible not to commit adultery as to actually commit it oneself! The same principle of the Law, would teach that it is just as bad to eat things offered to idols as to teach that it is impossible not to obey God's command not to! It is most obvious to any discerning mind that does not need every fine point illustrated, that the doctrine of the Nicolaitans taught freedom from law or commandment-keeping. Ant that is precisely what Page and party teach. That it is impossible to do so.

The Doctrine of the Nicolaitans and Ecumenism

"And what agreement hath the temple of god with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean ting; and I will receive you, And will be a father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty." II Cor. 6:16, 17.

Doctrine of the Nicolaitans According to Ellen White

"Doctrine of the Nicolaitans.-- The doctrine is now largely taught that the gospel of Christ has made the law of God of no effect; that by 'believing' we are released from the necessity of being doers of the Word. But this is the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which Christ so unsparingly condemned." E.G. White, SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 7, 957, and Signs of the Times, Jan 2. 1912.

New Movement Adventists teach exactly as Ellen White describes above. They teach the Doctrine of the Nicolaitans. If we cannot overcome; if we cannot keep the commandments of God, and can be saved anyway, let's have a party! Let's meet in Las Vegas, and let anything go! Why not?! If you need a little money, go rob a bank. If you do not like someone, kill them. You will still be saved, because Christ's robe of righteousness will cover all such sins, just remember to always repent after your always sin!

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THE NICOLAITANS
by Al Maxey
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In Rev. 2:6 Jesus praises the church in the city of Ephesus for "hating the deeds of the Nicolaitans," which our Lord then states He also hates. Later, in verse 15, He declares His displeasure with the saints in Pergamum. Why? Because "you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans." In Ephesus this group was quickly turned away, which gained the praise of Jesus Christ. In Pergamum they were welcomed, and even embraced, thus incurring our Lord's condemnation.

Who were the Nicolaitans? Where did they come from? What did they believe? These are just a few of the many questions which have been repeatedly asked for centuries, and the answers are not quickly or easily perceived, in part because this group is mentioned by name only twice in the entire Bible (Rev. 2:6, 15).

Some have stated, in a rather general way, that they were simply a small, insignificant sect within the early church who held to some rather strange beliefs. They surfaced here and there and eventually died out altogether without causing much of a stir. Others identify them as being an early gnostic group --- Gnosticism being one of the major heresies which plagued the Lord's church during the first few centuries. Still others suggest they were really just worshippers of Baal which were going by a different name to protect themselves from persecution. A few scholars even maintain that no such group ever actually existed. The "Nicolaitans" were merely a symbol employed by the Lord, and the term was not to be taken literally.

As already noted, the Bible itself says little about the Nicolaitans. To discover more about them one must appeal to the non-biblical writers of that period of time. These early church authors are often referred to as the Apostolic Fathers. Although these men were not inspired of God in what they wrote (as is often evident in their writings!), yet they are a valuable source of information and insight concerning the history and practices of the early church. Thus, biblical scholars rely rather heavily upon them for much of our knowledge about this period of church history.

THEIR ORIGIN

To begin our study, we must try to determine the origin of this group. Where did they come from? Who was their founder? What caused such a group to be formed? As one might imagine, there are numerous theories which speculate as to the origin of the Nicolaitans. The prevailing theory, however, is that it was founded by a man named Nicolaus, the same Nicolaus listed in Acts 6:5 as one of the seven Spirit-filled men chosen to oversee a special ministry in the Jerusalem church.

Acts 6:5 --- "And they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmanas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch."

Many early church writers feel it was this particular proselyte of Antioch who eventually departed from sound doctrine, and influenced others with his strange and deadly doctrine. About a hundred years after the writing of Revelation, an early church writer by the name of Hippolytus wrote:

"Nicolaus, as one of the seven (that were chosen) for the diaconate, was appointed by the Apostles. (But Nicolaus) departed from correct doctrine, and was in the habit of inculcating indifferency of both life and food. And when the disciples (of Nicolaus) continued to offer insult to the Holy Spirit, John reproved them in the Apocalypse as fornicators and eaters of things offered unto idols." About two hundred years later, John Cassian wrote:

"We need never .... wonder that some bad and detestable men have secretly found their way into the number of the saints. If we bear in mind that Satan was chosen among the angels, and Judas among the apostles, and Nicolaus the author of a detestable heresy among the deacons, it will be no wonder that the basest of men are found among the ranks of the saints." Thus, we soon discover that many of the early church writers held to the view that this previously highly favored man, who had been appointed by the apostles to a position of responsibility and trust in the church, had not lived up to his calling ..... and, indeed, had become an apostate! Though he is condemned by many, the evidence basically comes from a single source --- a brief story told by Clement of Alexandria (about a hundred years after the writing of Revelation) and recorded for us by Eusebius:

"This man (Nicolaus), it is said, had a young and lovely wife. And when he was reproached by the apostles, after the ascension of the Saviour, for jealousy, he brought her into their midst and bade anyone marry her who wished. For this action, it is said, was in accordance with that saying (of his), 'One ought to abuse the flesh;' and, as a matter of fact, the members of his sect have followed both example and precept absolutely and without question, and commit fornication freely. But for my part, I understand that Nicolaus had intercourse with no woman except his wife; and that, as regards his children, the daughters grew old in a state of virginity, while his son preserved his chastity. Such being the case, when he brought the wife, whom he jealously loved, publicly into the midst of the apostles, it was to renounce his passion; and it was self-control, in the face of pleasures men eagerly seek, that taught him to say 'abuse the flesh.' For, I imagine, in accordance with the Saviour's command, he did not wish to serve two masters, pleasure and the Lord."

As one can see from this ancient account, Clement defends Nicolaus and his actions, declaring that it was his passion for Christ, not the flesh, that led him to do what he did. Now, whether Nicolaus ever actually performed such an act or not is impossible to say. But, even if he did, this is no proof that he founded such a group as the Nicolaitans, which apparently practiced acts of immorality. Indeed, Clement argues that he did not!

If indeed the above described act occurred, it is possible that some who may have witnessed it, or who perhaps later heard the story recounted, may have interpreted it to mean that immorality was acceptable. After all, here was a "Spirit-filled Deacon" in the church offering his wife to the congregation! Thus, it must be OK!

It is also possible that as this early heretical group grew and developed, perhaps adopting other questionable practices as well, that it may have adopted for itself the name of Nicolaus. It was a common practice among early heretics to take the name of an apostle, or one of their associates, in an effort to try and gain respectability for themselves and their doctrines and practices. This is probably the case with the Nicolaitans, as a great many early church writers suggest. Eusebius, for example, says that "these persons made their boast of Nicolaus." Ignatius of Antioch (martyred in Rome just twenty years after the time of Revelation) twice makes mention of the Nicolaitans as impostors, saying they are "falsely so called."

After examining every reference to this heretical group in the writings of the Church Fathers, and weighing the evidence, it is the conclusion of this author that the Nicolaitans were not directly founded by the Nicolaus mentioned in Acts 6:5. Rather, the evidence suggests this group adopted his name in hopes of lending a degree of respectability and acceptance to their doctrines and practices.

THEIR BELIEFS & TEACHINGS

What was it about this group that caused them to be so detestable in the sight of the Lord, and also in the sight of the church at Ephesus? What exactly did they believe and teach and practice that generated such feelings of abhorrence? Although the early church writers disagreed on who founded the Nicolaitans and how they came by their name, there is little to no disagreement on what they taught and believed.

Apparently, they were very similar to the Balaamites of the OT, in that they committed acts of immorality (fornication) and they ate meat that had been offered to idols. In Rev. 2:14-15 the Lord makes this connection plain: "You have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit acts of immorality. You also have some who in the same way hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans."

It is also likely that Jezebel, whom Jesus condemns in the epistle to Thyatira, was a member of the Nicolaitans, for Rev. 2:20 says, "she teaches and leads my bond-servants astray, so that they commit acts of immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols." These are the same offenses earlier condemned as practices of the Nicolaitans.

None of the earlier church writers (or later ones, for that matter) have anything good to say about the beliefs or practices of this group. The Constitutions of the Holy Apostles states that "those who are falsely called Nicolaitans, are impudent in uncleanness." Tertullian (with regard to marriage) says, "The Nicolaitans, in their maintenance of lust and luxury, destroy the happiness of sanctity." Irenaeus writes, "they lead lives of unrestrained indulgence," and teach "it is a matter of indifference to practice adultery, and to eat things sacrificed to idols." Ignatius brands them as "lovers of pleasure, and given to slanderous speeches." He also says that they "affirm that unlawful unions are a good thing, and place the highest happiness in pleasure."

A question which comes immediately to mind at this point is: How could a group of individuals in the early church hold to such beliefs and practices and still profess to be followers of Jesus Christ?! Would they not see the inconsistency? The answer apparently is that, like Balaam, they were self-deceived and self-deluded. This caused them to gloss over their obvious wickedness, and to dress it up so as to make it more acceptable to both themselves and those around them. Contributing to this state of self-deception is the fact that they may also have been misinterpreting a passage from one of the epistles of Paul --- "ALL things are lawful for me" (I Cor. 6:12). Paul later writes:

I Cor. 8:4, 7-8 --- "Therefore, concerning the eating of things sacrificed to idols, we know that there is no such thing as an idol in the world, and that there is no God but one. However not all men have this knowledge; but some, being accustomed to the idol until now, eat food as if it were sacrificed to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. But food will not commend us to God; we are neither the worse if we do not eat, nor the better if we do eat."

The Nicolaitans, having possibly misunderstood this and other related passages ..... or perhaps having intentionally perverted them ..... declared themselves free in Christ to do as they pleased, regardless of who it hurt or who was offended. This even included committing acts of immorality! After all, hadn't Paul said, "ALL things are lawful for me"?

This may all seem rather absurd to us, even hard to believe, yet one won't have a great deal of difficulty finding those in the Lord's church today who, at least in principle if not in fact, hold to these same Nicolaitan beliefs! These are those who see nothing wrong with a certain amount of compromise with the world about them, with becoming more and more worldly in nature and practice, while still claiming to be faithful disciples of Christ! Such compromise is nothing short of that ancient Nicolaitan heresy raising it ugly head in a modern setting!

A scholar by the name of Fiorenaz makes the following observation:

"Whereas the Nicolaitans considered themselves free to participate in idolatrous feasts because of their salvation in Christ, the author of Revelation emphasizes that salvation and Christian existence has to be proved in the rejection of both idolatry and participation in the Roman civil religion."

In the same way, our salvation in Christ, and our faith, is not truly demonstrated to others or made stronger by trying to prove that we can wallow in the world and still come away appearing to be clean! Rather, it is displayed by rejecting the activities of the world, and by living in such a way that we might be presented to the Bridegroom as a "pure virgin" (II Cor. 11:2).

CIRCUMSTANCES LEADING TO NICOLAITANISM

Another question which arises at this point is: Were there possibly certain circumstances in these cities of Asia Minor which may have given rise to these doctrines ... or made it profitable and even advisable (from an earthly perspective) to embrace them? Although this heresy didn't catch on in Ephesus, it did in Pergamum and Thyatira. What was there in these two cities which may have been conducive to the growth of Nicolaitanism?

When one examines a map, it will become clear that Pergamum and Thyatira are only about thirty miles apart. Both are located in the northern part of the land, and are separated geographically from the other five cities mentioned in Revelation. The real key, however, is that these two cities were extremely trade-guild oriented. These guilds were similar to the labor unions of today. The guilds were very pleasure oriented, idols were worshipped during their meetings, they ate food offered to the idols, and there were also very wild, immoral parties for the members, so that they could "loosen up" and become happier, more productive workers. Ramsay, in his book The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia, writes:

"It may be regarded as certain that the importance of the trade-guilds in Thyatira made the Nicolaitan doctrine very popular there. The guilds were very numerous in that city, and are often mentioned in great variety in the inscriptions. It was, certainly, hardly possible for a tradesman to maintain his business in Thyatira without belonging to the guild of his trade. The guilds were corporate bodies, taking active measures to protect the common interests, owning property, passing decrees, and exercising considerable powers. In no other city, save Pergamum, are they so conspicuous. It was therefore a serious thing for a Thyatiran to cut himself off from his guild."

Undoubtedly, many members of the early church made their livings at a trade which required that they be members of a certain trade-guild. And to be a member meant attending the meetings, and taking an active part, so as not to be viewed unfavorably by the guild. To be viewed unfavorably could lead to dismissal from the guild, which meant loss of one's profession and source of income. A person could literally go from riches to rags depending on how he or she was viewed by the guild. Thus, Christians were faced with a problem; a problem compounded by the fact that at these meetings not only were there sacrifices made to idols (and all members were required to participate), but there was also drinking and open sexual activity. It was considered the duty of the members to participate.

From a worldly point of view, these guilds were just trying to help their members be better employees. It really wasn't viewed as sinful or immoral. In fact, these acts were viewed as being religious acts. Sacrifices to various gods were made during the meetings, and the services of temple prostitutes were even engaged.

What was the Christian worker to do?! Many, obviously, quit their guilds, and in so doing lost their ability to earn an income. They were willing to make this sacrifice, however, in order to remain faithful to their Lord. Some, however, were not willing to go that far. Thus, they needed to find a way to rationalize their continued involvement in the practices of the guild. This they did by proclaiming themselves "free in Christ." Many perhaps reasoned: If we stay in the guild and continue our association with these people, we might even be able to influence them to accept Christ. Others began to teach that it was really only the physical body (the flesh) which was actually engaging in the immoral practices anyway, and so as long as they remained pure in spirit then God would accept them. This latter view was a definite reflection of the Gnostic teaching of the first century, and perhaps also reflects a twisting of Paul's statement in Romans 7:14f about the conflict of the two natures.

With all of this "logic" at their disposal, their consciences were eased, and they viewed themselves as members in good standing both of the church and of the guild --- and apparently the church in both of these cities did not strongly enough disagree with this view, for Jesus not only condemns those who were involved in this compromise with the world, but He also condemns the congregations for tolerating it!!

The evidence, both biblical and extra-biblical, seems to clearly point to the fact that the group known as the Nicolaitans arose from a perceived need of some early Christians to conform to their society to a certain extent for their own survival, and in a willingness to pervert certain passages of Scripture in an attempt to try and justify their conformity. Perhaps this group can best be described, in the words of Fiorenaz, as "a Christian libertine group within the churches of Asia Minor." They viewed themselves to be at liberty to compromise with the world.

LATER HISTORY

It appears that this group did not long survive ... at least, not in as open and recognizable a form as it had been at first. According to Eusebius, the Nicolaitans "arose for a very brief time ... and in less time than it takes to say it, were completely extinguished."

The word "Nicolaitan" itself, however, lasted for many centuries. In time, it came to be freely applied to those who were the object of the user's contempt. It came to have much the same connotation as "Judas" has for some -- characterizing one as a traitor.

In the Middle Ages, for example, the word was used by the Roman Catholic Church to describe those priests who approved of clerical marriage. Hastings, in his dictionary, writes:

"In the disputes as to the celibacy of the clergy, again the term was applied to the married priests by the opponents of clerical marriage. It appears to have been first used in this connection by Cardinal Humbert who described the 'Nicolaitan heresy' as consisting in the justification of clerical marriage; and in that sense it obtained official recognition in the canons of the Council of Piacenze in March, 1095 AD." Even today the term has not died out completely. Occasionally one will still hear the term applied by one opponent to another. Recently, for example, one church leader castigated all "liberals" as being "Nicolaitans." Nicolaitanism, thus, was equated to Liberalism. Another religious leader recently condemned the celebrating of Christmas as being the "Nicolaitan heresy." His logic was that this holiday is associated with "St. Nicolas" -- or Santa Claus!

"Thus you also have some who in the same way hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Repent therefore; or else I am coming to you quickly, and I will make war against them with the sword of My mouth. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches" (Rev. 2:15-17).

CONCLUSIONS

It is this author's belief that the "Nicolaitan heresy" never truly died. It still exists in the church today just as much as it did in the early church ... if not more! The belief among some in the Body of Christ that they are free in Christ to engage in sinful practices, that they can successfully serve two masters, that they can acceptably compromise with the world and still be "Christians in good standing," has never really left us! And such compromisers still attempt to twist God's Word to try and justify their sinful practices. And, sadly, we, in the church, still too often continue to tolerate them in our midst.

In Christianity there can be NO compromise with the world about us, regardless of what sacrifices one may be called upon to make! The message to the early church by our Lord applies just as much today as it did in the first century .... for the danger is just as great!