The Nicolaitans Today

by Rick Shrader

The job of doing Bible exposition not only involves interpretation (finding what the passage means) and illustration (highlighting the meaning with real life situations) but also application (exhortations to action based on the truths found in the text).  The application of a text can easily be ignored because this is the harder thing to do.  No one feels pressured by Bible study or story-telling, but reproof, rebuke and exhortation may bring antipathy from the hearers.  The angel told John that the Scripture would be sweet to the taste but would grow bitter as it is digested, processed and lived out (Rev. 10:1-11).

In a day of relativism, positivism, syncretism and diversity, direct application of Biblical principles to specific situations in people’s lives is the first thing to go.  Confrontation becomes a real deterrent to the success game these days as people, Christian and non-Christian, do not like spiritual truths presented in such a personal manner.  However, in the second chapter of Revelation the Lord Himself directly applies familiar Old Testament truths from the life of Balaam (2:14) and Jezebel (2:20) to the compromises and sins of the churches in Pergamos and Thyatira.  He also applies a newer label, the Nicolaitans, to the sins of Ephesus and Pergamos in the same manner, even adding that their practice was something that He Himself hated.

The Problem

The church at Ephesus had been the strategic center of Asian evangelism since Paul founded the church in Acts 19.  It is probable that most of the Asian churches were started as mission projects from Ephesus.  But in the thirty years since, while remaining busy and active in good works (nine different expressions of their Christian works are given in 2:2-3), they had grown cold toward what should have remained as their first love—the Lord Jesus Christ and His Church.  Unless they took specific steps (2:4) to remedy the problem they would lose their place of blessing.  Part of the pressure brought upon the Ephesian church was the growing doctrine of the Nicolaitans.  Ephesus still “hated” this contemporary expression of worldliness while Pergamos had begun accepting it and Thyatira had fully incorporated it into the church.  Wm. M. Ramsay, in his notes on Pergamos explains,

The honourable history and the steadfast loyalty of the Pergamenian Church, however, had been tarnished by the error of a minority of the congregation, which had been convinced by the teaching of the Nicolaitans.  This school of thought and conduct played an important part in the Church of the first century.  Ephesus had tried and rejected it; the Smyrnaean congregation, despised and ill-treated by their fellow-citizens, had apparently not been much affected by it; in Pergamum a minority of the Church had adopted its principles; in Thyatira the majority were attracted by it, and it there found its chief seat, so far as Asia was concerned.1

As Paul left the Ephesian elders in Acts 20, he warned them For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock.  Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them (Acts 20:29-30).  By AD 95 these wolves had come to be known as Nicolaitans.

The Definition

It is not entirely clear where this group of deceivers got their name.  History has given us a few choices, one of which or a combination, is probably correct.  1) One view, which goes as far back as Iranaeus, relies on the ancient writer Epiphanius who wrote that the name is taken from Nicolas, one of the first deacons (Acts 6:5), who fell into immorality and apostasy which was still affecting the church at that time.2 2) A second view was that Nicolas himself was a good and moral man who used an unfortunate expression for “abusing the flesh,” by which he meant to mortify the flesh but which his followers perverted into “indulging the flesh.”3 By this time they were practicing having common wives and idol worship as morally acceptable.  3) A popular view is that the name “Nicolaitan” comes from nikao, “to consume” and laos, “the people.”  In that case it would be the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew name “Balaam” which also means “to conquer” or “consume the people.”4 4) Some take this to be a Gnostic group which followed Cerinthus and was being propagated by a local man whose name happened to be Nicolas.5

A highly possible conclusion is that this was a licentious group who had mixed with the pagan practices of the day including eating meat offered to idols and committing fornication (2:14, 20) and came to be associated with the name “Nicolaitans” because of local history and closeness to other similar groups.  They seem to be equated with the doctrines of Balaam and Jezebel by context and the text (verse 15, houtos, “thus you have”).  The following descriptions of the Nicolaitans and their beliefs are worth repeating here.

Albert Barnes describes them:  “By plausibly teaching that there could be no harm in eating what had been offered in sacrifice—since an idol was nothing, and the flesh of animals offered in sacrifice was the same as if slaughtered for some other purpose, it would seem that these teachers at Pergamos had induced professing Christians to attend on those feasts—thus lending their countenance to idolatry, and exposing themselves to all the corruption and licentiousness that commonly attended such celebrations.”6 Alan Johnson quotes Fiorenza, “The Nicolaitans are according to Revelation a Christian group within the churches of Asia Minor and have their adherents even among the itinerant missionaries and the prophetic teachers of the community.  They claim to have insight into the divine or, more probably, into the demonic.  They express their freedom in libertine behavior, which allows them to become part of their syncretistic pagan society and to participate in the Roman civil religion.”7 William Smith is more specific in his application when he writes, “Mingling themselves in the orgies of idolatrous feasts, they brought the impurities of those feasts into the meetings of the Christian Church.  And all this was done, it must be remembered, not simply as an indulgence of appetite, but as part of a system, supported by a ‘doctrine’ accompanied by the boast of a prophetic illumination (2 Pet. 2:1).”8

We should note again, that what was adopted by the entire congregation in Thyatira had just become a doctrine for a few in Pergamos.  In Ephesus, however, the decision was still being made whether  this teaching that they had always hated (and no doubt Pergamos and Thyatira had also at one time) would be allowed in the church.  Ramsay adds a note that sounds familiar where worldliness pushes its way into the church:  “It is clear also that the Nicolaitans rather pitied and condemned the humbler intelligence and humbler position of the opposite section in the church; and hence we shall find that both in the Thyatiran and in the Pergamenian letter St. John exalts the dignity, authority and power that shall fall to the lot of the victorious Christian.”9

The Application

As I have noted, the Lord makes an application from Balaam and Jezebel directly to the worldliness of Pergamos and Thyatira.  The label of “Nicolaitan” was a modern description of the growing worldliness and dying love in Ephesus.  We ought to be able to make the same kind of application from the first century directly to our day as He made from Balaam and Jezebel to their day.

1) Worldliness had become a doctrine in the churches.  They had found a way to justify their practices with a teaching that the culture and customs of the Greeks and Romans were not something to be shunned.  Ramsay writes:

It was evidently an attempt to effect a reasonable compromise with the established usages of Graeco-Roman society and to retain as many as possible of those usages in the Christian system of life.  It affected most of all the cultured and well-to-do classes in the Church, those who had most temptation to retain all that they could of the established social order and customs of the Graeco-Roman world, and who by their more elaborate education had been trained to take a somewhat artificial view of life and to reconcile contradictory principles in practical conduct through subtle philosophical reasoning.10

Our churches today have established a “doctrine” that the world’s culture is morally neutral except where an overt sin is specifically mentioned by name.  All other applications of Scripture to culture and life have become out of bounds.  To our generation music in all its forms must remain morally neutral, only the words can be right or wrong; the body can be uncovered by parts, and as long as the whole body isn’t uncovered all at once, it can’t be called nakedness (if it is it conveniently becomes the looker’s “problem”); crude language of any kind is now allowed as long as God’s name isn’t specifically mentioned—and even then it is permitted as an exclamation; all worldly places of amusement, revelry and exhibition are allowed as long as a person’s thoughts don’t get too carried away; separation is now seen as an historic mistake foisted upon the church by extreme fundamentalists!  If challenged by anyone about these or similar issues of worldliness, the apologetic is always to point out that no one can be 100% consistent and therefore it is wrong to “judge” the sin at any level.

Just as Nicolas’ statement of mortifying the body was turned into indulging the body, our churches have turned separation from outward things into separation of the mind only; where our use of methods was within a Christian life-style, it now includes anything the world also uses; where worship meant falling prostrate before a sovereign God, it now means screaming, dancing, waving, laughing and applauding before a God who changes as we change.  Surely this is the doctrine of the Nicolaitans!

2) Idol worship had become a harmless cultural adventure that believers could take or leave because of their superior understanding.  John Gill wrote, “Dr. Lightfoot conjectures, that these Nicolaitans were not called so from any man, but from the word Nicolah, “let us eat,” which they often used to encourage each other to eat things offered to idols.  However this be, it is certain that there were such a set of men, whose deeds were hateful.”11

How can we doubt that today’s churches are eating the meat offered to idols when they attend all the places of worldly and ungodly entertainment, watch things like American Idol, cheer for the most ungodly heroes, and then bring such “meat” back into the churches by copying those “idols” with their own Christian singers, preachers, entertainers and self-centered showmanship.  Surely this is the doctrine of the Nicolaitans!

3) Immorality became a commonly accepted practice.  The Jerusalem council knew that fornication went hand in hand with eating things offered to idols (Acts 15:28-29).  Balaam knew that if the Israelites fell for one they would fall for the other.  Alan Johnson writes, “The prevalence of sexual immorality in first-century pagan society makes it entirely possible that some Christians at Pergamum were still participating in the holiday festivities and saw no wrong in indulging in the ‘harmless’ table in the temples and the sexual excitement everyone else was enjoying.”12 Today’s polls and surveys will continue to flood in that show immorality as high in the church as out of the church. We cannot keep feeding our young people the idol meat of the world without it resulting in copying the indulgences of the flesh.  Surely this is the doctrine of the Nicolaitans!

The Solution

The Lord’s formula for recovery is simple:  Remember, Repent, Redo or Remove! (vs.5)  The probability of the Asian churches all following it was as remote as it is today.  It is this writer’s opinion that our culture is not more innocent than it used to be, nor is it more morally neutral, nor has today’s church become spiritually stronger than their first-century counterparts.  Within my life-time alone conservative churches have made an obvious 180 degree turn while using the same terminology and printing the same literature.  But saying it doesn’t make it so.  Ephesus, Pergamos and Thyatira were all commended for their good works.  But these did not nullify God’s judgment for their participation in worldliness.  God is not a pragmatist.  His means and ends have always been equal.  These are the warnings of a Savior who walketh among the seven golden candlesticks (2:1); the One which hath the sharp sword with two edges (2:12); the One who hath his eyes like unto a flame of fire, and his feet like fine brass (2:18).

1. Wm. M. Ramsay, The Leters To The Seven Churches Of Asia (New York: Hodder & Stoughton, nd) 298.
2. See Barnes’ Notes and Wm. Smith’s Dictionary for examples.
3. See John Gill’s Commentary for an example.
4. See Alan Johnson and John Walvoord for examples.
5. See R.C.H. Lenski for an example.
6. Albert Barnes, Notes on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1980) 76-77.
7. Alan Johnson, “Revelation” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981) 435.
8. William Smith, Dictionary of the Bible (Hartford: S.S. Scranton & Co., 1899) 626.
9. Ramsay, 301.
10. Ramsay, 299.
11. John Gill, Exposition of the Bible, vol. 6 (London: Wm. Hill Collinridge,1853 ) 941.
12. Johnson, 441.