Although prior studies on this phenomenon had been done, the church's interest in Nicolaitanism coincided with the breakup and scattering of the church in the early 1990s. Papers on the subject, often linked with ideas about the heresy of Balaam, circulated from hand to hand and across the Internet. One can even argue that these papers' definitions of Nicolaitanism spurred and intensified the scattering of the brethren.
In the main, these papers defined Nicolaitanism as the belief and practice of hierarchical government, the scapegoat for all the church's problems, with an emphasis on tithing and using a paid ministry. This definition derives from the meaning of the word Nicolaos in Greek: "conqueror of the people" (Balaam in Hebrew has a similar meaning). The authors of these papers on Nicolaitanism assumed that, since God names things what they are, the title "Nicolaitan" must therefore refer to a practice of abusive and dictatorial government and administration, which they assumed to be hierarchy. This assumption is based entirely on the authors' emotional reactions to their circumstances at the time—not upon biblical or even logical reasoning.
First, Nicolaos may have nothing to do with Nicolaitan doctrine. Not every name in the Bible is significant spiritually. For instance, Luke means "white," and any spiritual connotation it has to him or his work is pure conjecture. Many biblical names are simple common names within the culture and time in which the person lived.
Second, the meaning of Nicolaos is not necessarily negative. Although its natural connotation is "one who conquers the people," it can have a positive, possessive sense: "the people's conqueror," that is, a champion of the people, one who fights for the people's best interests. It may refer to a tyrant or despot, but it can just as easily speak of a popular hero.
Third, the name has a military association, not a governmental one. It primarily suggests conquering by might and strategy on the field of battle. Granted, such conquerors usually also governed as kings or emperors, but ruling is a separate activity from conquering, occurring as its consequence.
Fourth, this means that Nicolaos nowhere suggests any form of government. Those who believe the word to refer to hierarchy assume that a conqueror would rule as a tyrant or dictator, whether he is called king, emperor, president, chancellor, or first citizen. While this may be the rule, a few historical exceptions (for example, American military-heroes-turned-rulers George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses Grant, Dwight Eisenhower, etc.) prove this assumption faulty.
Finally, people can be conquered in ways other than "abusive and dictatorial" hierarchy. Socialist democracy in America and Europe has by mostly "benevolent" means cowed millions into a complacent and controllable herd. Populaces have been overcome by trickery, disease, famine, natural disaster, and their own sheer stupidity. Limiting Nicolaitanism to hierarchical government is arbitrary and subjective.
The Bible itself does not define Nicolaitanism. Revelation 2:6 declares, "But this you [the Ephesian church] have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate." Jesus later says to the Pergamos church, "Thus you also have those who hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate" (verse 15). While these verses provide no definition, they tell us three things:
1. Nicolaitanism is a belief system, like a religion or a philosophy.
2. Nicolaitanism results in ungodly behavior.
3. Christ hates it vehemently.
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
Note that each of these congregations—those in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea—was located in a Gentile city, and in all probability, each congregation's membership was primarily Gentile. It is quite likely that in each congregation the Jews were a minority.
Recall that the Romans ravaged Jerusalem in AD 70, and its Christians had to flee to Pella to save their lives. It is highly probable that none of these congregations had any communication with any survivor of the first congregation in Jerusalem. All of the apostles except John were dead, and he had been banished to Patmos. This circumstance was far different from the one in which the church was founded.
Were these Gentile congregations still part of the true church? Were they free of flaws and perfect in their character, attitudes, and doctrines? Would such a negative judgment eliminate them from being a true assembly?
Consider these further factors: Revelation 2:4 commends the congregation in Ephesus for doctrinal vigilance but castigates it for leaving its first love. Revelation 2:9-11 shows Christ commending Smyrna for being spiritually rich, but He also admonishes them to overcome. Despite His commendation, they are not a finished product.
Revelation 2:13-15 praises those in Pergamos for not denying their faith, but its members are doctrinally divided, and they permit heresy to continue. Revelation 2:19-20 presents Thyatira as growing in good works, but its members tolerate heresy and are guilty of sexual immorality.
Revelation 3:1, 4 exposes Sardis as spiritually dead, though it contains a few who remain undefiled, indicating that its members have virtually lost their faith and are capable only of dead works. Revelation 3:8, 11-12 reports that those in Philadelphia are faithfully enduring, but Christ admonishes them to hold fast and overcome. Finally, Revelation 3:15, 19 judges Laodicea as spiritually bankrupt and gives it no commendation at all. The congregation is strongly advised to be zealous and repent.
What does a composite picture of these congregations reveal?
1. All seven of them are admonished to repent, hold fast, or remain faithful.
2. Only two of them, Smyrna and Philadelphia, receive strong commendations and no listing of their sins and other shortcomings.
3. Two of them, Pergamos and Thyatira, receive a lesser commendation and fairly strong rebukes for sexual immorality and allowing deceivers into the congregation.
4. Two of them, Sardis and Laodicea, receive strong rebukes and no commendations.
In terms of a true church in a single corporate body, what do we see? Only sixty years or so following Christ's resurrection, we have a mixed bag as regards overall stability and righteousness.
Even so, is any one of them not a true congregation, an assembly of truly called-out ones? Does Christ in any way say that even one of them was no longer part of His church, His body of people? Not in the least. There are, however, warnings that, if they did not repent, some within their fellowship might not be within the Body of Christ in the future. Two things are sure:
1. Some of these congregations are clearly spiritually better than the others.
2. Some of them are decidedly awful, even though, using carnal judgment, they may outwardly appear good.
Since Revelation is an end-time book, the overview given in Revelation 2 and 3 is especially significant at this time. It is forecasting what things will be like just before Christ returns, and He uses these first-century congregations to illustrate His forecast for our time.
Remember that God is judging us individually within each group. An attitude that we should not allow to grow in us is to think that we are the only ones who retain a true-church identity. The other side of that same concept is that, even if we agree that others are still part of the true church, we are still better than they are—indeed, everybody else is Laodicean by comparison.
This unmistakably holier-than-you attitude is extremely destructive to true brotherhood and proper fellowship and unity. Luke 18:9-14 records this teaching of Christ concerning self-righteousness and its effects on these matters. Those who elevate themselves in their judgment of themselves as compared to their fellow members bring on themselves this condemnation. God does not justify them when they make this kind of judgment.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Is There a True Church?
Symbolically, adultery is used to express unfaithfulness to God, and we can easily see this in Israel's idolatry. God is represented as the husband of His people. Ezekiel 16:15-59 gives a graphic description of Israel's spiritual adultery, and Hosea 1:1-2 shows the same symbolism in Hosea's marriage. We can fall into spiritual adultery by relying on the world and its false teaching rather than God.
Martin G. Collins
The Seventh Commandment
Pergamos means "thoroughly married," like in a binding relationship. However, the context of these verses shows that they are in a relationship with a system—the wrong one! The doctrines of Balaam are in their congregation, as well as the doctrines of the Nicolaitans. Thus, He tells them to repent because some there, unlike Smyrna, had drifted away from what they had previously learned. They had not been faithful in the relationship to Him, even though they gave lip service to the doctrines.
John W. Ritenbaugh
What Is the Work of God Now? (Part Four)
The structure of this paragraph ties together the doctrine of Balaam, the sins of eating things sacrificed to idols and committing sexual immorality, and the doctrine of the Nicolaitans. Christ implies that all three are the same basic heresy under different guises. This antinomian teaching affected the church in Thyatira as well (Revelation 2:20-21).
Moses records Balaam's story in Numbers 22-25, 31. Balak, king of Moab, hires Balaam to curse the Israelites, but every time he tries, Balaam instead blesses them. He then counsels Balak to send Moabite and Midianite women into the camp of Israel to seduce the men and invite them to the sacrifices of their god (Numbers 25:1-2; 31:16). Clearly, Balaam's instruction included getting the Israelites to commit idolatry and sexual immorality.
Interestingly, these two practices arise in the Jerusalem Council in AD 49. Paul and Barnabas, with Peter's help, convince the assembled elders that Gentile converts to Christianity should not be required to be circumcised and keep the law of Moses, Judaism's rigorous "yoke" of picayune laws (Acts 15:10). However, the Council enjoins the Gentiles on four points of typical Gentile religious practice:
For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell. (Acts 15:28-29)
Obviously, the Council's decree does not exempt Gentiles from keeping the Ten Commandments, for it is clear from many New Testament passages that Jesus and the apostles taught them to both Jews and Gentiles (e.g., Matthew 19:17-19; Romans 13:9; etc.). These two issues—idolatry and sexual immorality—became a flashpoint in the conflict between true Christianity and Hellenistic Gnosticism, and a person's stance on them exposed which side he favored. Thus, Nicolaitanism and Balaamism are biblical symbols or representatives of the larger Gnostic, antinomian influence on Christianity.
Is Nicolaitanism passé? Evidently not, for Jesus' admonitions in Revelation 2 indicate that this antinomian influence will remain until His return. Notice His warnings to Pergamos and Thyatira:
Repent, or else I will come to you quickly and will fight against them with the sword of My mouth. . . . But to you I say, and to the rest in Thyatira, as many as do not have this doctrine, and who have not known the depths of Satan [another allusion to antinomianism], as they call them, I will put on you no other burden. But hold fast what you have till I come. (Revelation 2:16, 24-25)
This does not mean that the particular sins of eating meat sacrificed to idols and sexual license will pervade the church until the end, although idolatry and sexual sins will certainly exist in it. He is more concerned about the antinomian spirit, the attitude of lawlessness, that allows these sins to infest the church. When members of the church teach and practice that they are not obliged to keep the laws of God, sin will inevitably break out vigorously. When this occurs, Christians are no longer under grace but under the penalty of the law and the wrath of the Judge (Romans 6:11-23; Hebrews 10:26-31; 12:25).
Jesus, Paul, Peter, Jude, and John warn against the encroachment of antinomianism or lawlessness. In His Olivet Prophecy, Jesus says: "Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many. And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold" (Matthew 24:11-12). What will happen to such lawless people? Jesus Himself answers:
Many will say to Me in that day, "Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?" And then I will declare to them, "I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!" (Matthew 7:22-23)
Among Paul's end-time prophecies is his prediction of a great apostasy that results from the unrestrained assault of "the mystery of lawlessness" (II Thessalonians 2:1-7). This comes
with all unrighteous deception among those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved. And for this reason God will send them strong delusion, that they should believe the lie, that they all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness. . . . Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught. . . . (II Thessalonians 2:10-12, 15)
Peter and Jude use similar language in their books to counter the antinomian teaching extant in their congregations (II Peter 2:9-10, 12-13, 15, 18-19; 3:17-18; Jude 3-4). John's epistles are likewise full of warnings against antinomian heresies. For instance, notice these passages:
» Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says, "I know Him," and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. (I John 2:3-4)
» Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness. (I John 3:4)
» In this the children of God and the children of the devil are manifest: Whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is he who does not love his brother. (I John 3:10)
» By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome. (I John 5:2-3)
» This is love, that we walk according to His commandments. . . . Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. . . . If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds. (II John 6, 9-11)
» Beloved, do not imitate what is evil, but what is good. He who does good is of God, but he who does evil has not seen God. (III John 11)
In addition, the gospel of John uses Jesus' own words during His ministry to attack antinomian heresies in the church. This much scriptural attention along with its prophetic implications warrants our taking careful notice.
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
God knows all and sees all. He can read the intents of the heart and understands our frame (Psalm 103:13-17). These people were faithful and held fast His name under trying circumstances and great temptations, but they also tolerated evil. He instructs them to repent or face "the sword of My mouth" (Hebrews 4:12-13). To whom much is given much is required (Luke 12:48).
The Seven Churches: Pergamos
Consider that this is Christ's message to His church just before the end, and this is what is most important for His people as we approach the end. Doctrine is mentioned seven times. Is that interesting in light of the times in which we live? We are seeing a major part of the church going haywire on doctrine! Is there something in the letter to Thyatira that mentions things that are happening in that group?
The letters contain at least eleven warnings to these seven churches but also at least twelve promises. Christ mentions faith, patience, conduct, and doctrine. But the two greatest, related concerns for His church at the end are works (Revelation 2:2,9,13,19; 3:1,8, 15) and overcoming (Revelation 2:7,11,17,26; 3:5,12,21).
Today, an awful lot of people are interested in church government at this time. It is not even mentioned by Christ! There are people who are interested in rituals, sacraments, and ceremonies, of which would be things like baptism or the Passover. But nothing in the seven letters alludes to these things. Nor is there anything in them about preaching the gospel around the world. These things have their place, but what we see is Christ's concern with doctrine, conduct, warnings to repent, and promises of reward.
Now these things that are not mentioned are less important than faith, repentance, and holiness, all of which directly impact on doctrine, conduct, and receiving the promises. All of these are bracketed between His statements about works and overcoming.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Revelation 2-3 and Works