By Britt Mooney, Crosswalk.com
As Christians, we like to throw around the word heresy a great deal, especially in theological, academic circles. We use the term with people who have different interpretations or doctrinal frameworks.
What is heresy? The word comes from the Greek hairesis, which technically means a division away from the main group, a sect, or faction. Implied within the idea in Christianity is that there is one universal and absolute truth and subsequent way to live, and it is dangerous and destructive to follow these ideas and sects.
Throughout the New Testament, there are several doctrines and beliefs that are condemned, notably wrong ideas about the person of the Lord Jesus Christ and the Gospel. As an example, many scholars believe that the Gospel and letters of the Apostle John are combating the gnostic heresies that began around his day, although he never used that term.
One group is specifically named, however, and the exploration of this group is not only interesting but important to our understanding of what God finds important and what separates us from the absolute truth of the Word of God. This group is mentioned in Revelation—the Nicolaitans.
Who Were the Nicolaitans in the Bible?
The Nicolaitans were mentioned twice in the book of Revelation, once during Jesus’ address to the church in Ephesus and again when he corrects the community of faith in Pergamos.
In Revelation 2:6, Jesus praises the church in Ephesus for hating the works (or acts) of the Nicolaitans, which Jesus also hated.
Later in the same chapter, 2:14-16, Jesus declares the following: “But I have a few things against you, because you have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality. Thus you also have those who hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate. Repent, or else I will come to you quickly and will fight against them with the sword of My mouth” (NLT).
The church in Ephesus was esteemed for hating the works of the Nicolaitans (note—not the people but their actions) and the Body in Pergamos was told to repent from allowing that belief in their congregation. Jesus uses the term “hate” to deal with the things the Nicolaitans were doing. He even goes so far as to compare them to a villain in the Old Testament, Balaam.
These are the only mentions in the whole of Scripture. Because of the strong language associated with them in the Bible, there have been writings throughout Christian history explaining more about this group.
The early church fathers, the leaders of the first few centuries of Christianity, are perhaps the most reliable group of writings to explore, since they lived closer to the time of John’s Revelation.
Without fail, the church fathers connected the Nicolaitans with two main issues—sexual immorality and the worship of idols. Several of the major and popular leaders of the first 500 years or so of Christian history wrote about the Nicolaitans—Irenaeus, Hippolytus of Rome, Epiphanius, Jerome, Clement, and Eusebius of Caesarea.
The only confusion between these men is where the sect originated from. Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Epiphanius, and Jerome trace the sect back to the first seven servant/deacons appointed by the church in Acts 6:5, of who Nicolas was one, essentially one of the first leaders of the church in Jerusalem beside the original 12 apostles.
The church fathers listed in the above paragraph agreed that Nicolas got into some bad teaching and spread those heretical ideas and formed his own sect. Therefore, the Nicolaitans of Revelation are his followers.
Clement and Eusebius, however, defend the character of Nicolas the Deacon, writing that he was chaste and pure. Those two argue that the Nicolaitans used Nicolas’ name to popularize their heresy. It wasn’t uncommon in those days for writers and leaders to appropriate a popular name to popularize their movement or letters, which is why scholars question certain gospels that didn’t make the canon.
Either way, there is agreement that the Nicolaitans were a heretical sect from the first-century church.
What Did the Nicolaitans Believe?
First, we should deal with the fact that a whole sect within Christianity was named after a certain individual. That alone is heretical according to Scripture. The Apostle Paul deals with this issue in the first letter of Corinthians, in which he is dumbfounded as to why there were factions in the church at Corinth. Some said they followed Paul; others followed Apollos (1 Corinthians 3:4).
No, Paul said. The church and its members belong to Christ alone. Therefore, just the simple reality that some were named as following a man is problematic.
Next, we can look at the root words of the name in Greek. Nico means power and laitan refers to people. The word literally means to conquer people. Jesus had a simple yet profound teaching on how the leaders of his disciples shouldn’t “lord it over” others but be a servant or slave of all (Matthew 23:11) to be great in his Kingdom, effectively contrasting with the Nicolaitans, as well.
A primary clue to the doctrine of the Nicolaitans is found in the comparison to Balaam. In Revelation, Jesus notes two main problems—the sexual immorality and worshipping idols.
Most of us know Balaam from the weird story with the talking donkey. But that story alone isn’t why he’s a villain from the Old Testament. The donkey partially stopped Balaam from cursing the Israelites in prophecy, at the behest of King Balak. When that didn’t work, Balak and Balaam tried a different tact, which is what Revelation is referring to.
Beginning in Numbers 22 and culminating in chapter 25, Balaam leads the Israelites away to marry and have sexual relations with Midianite women, which resulted in idol worship coming into the Israelite camp. God dealt with this violently.
Nehemiah 13 and Micah 6 refer to the curse and idolatry of Balaam, and he was known in the New Testament times, too. 2 Peter 2:15 mentions Balaam as an example of false prophets and people carousing in debauchery and making a profit off religion. Jude 1:11 also lists Balaam along with Cain to rail against false teachers and those who are rebellious to God’s authority.
Ephesus and Pergamos were pagan cities of that Hellenistic culture, complete with main temples to Roman and Greek gods that included perverse rites as part of the worship, including temple prostitutes. In summary, we see a pattern of sexual immorality, idol worship, and following the name of a man instead of God, all associated with the Nicolaitans. This is fascinating since most of what we would consider heresy is more philosophical or interpretive and doctrinal, yet the bulk of what Jesus confronts as heresy is behavioral, hence his phrase, “the works of the Nicolaitans.”
Ephesus stood in truth within the pagan culture. Pergamos didn’t and needed to repent.
Why Did Jesus Rebuke Them so Harshly?
While Jesus pointed to the behavior of this sect, there were heretical beliefs at their core. Christian is a term meaning “little Christ.” The term “Christian” was used by nonbelievers first since those who followed Jesus acted just like him (Acts 11:26). There’s only one name by which a person can be saved—Jesus (Acts 4:12). The Nicolaitans, whether Nicolas founded the sect or not, followed a different name. The Nicolaitans were leading people away from the singular name of the Lord Jesus Christ, which was leading people into spiritual death and destruction.
The sexual perversion and idolatry were the fruit of stepping away from following Christ alone. All of that had religious connotations through worship of actual idols and false gods.
The Nicolaitans were false teachers and prophets, proverbial “wolves in sheep’s clothing” (Matthew 7:15). and out to destroy people, to consume them, rule over them, and profit off the people God loves while leading them to sin, idolatry, and Hell.
Yeah, God wasn’t happy with that at all. In fact, since he loves people, he must then hate what is out to kill, steal, and destroy.
4 Ways to Watch out for Modern-Day Nicolaitans
But that was 2000 years ago. That sect died out. Most modern readers haven’t heard of them. There are no Nicolaitans today, right?
If there’s one thing that we should remember about Satan, it is this—he’s not that creative. He wasn’t made in the image of God and has no creative capabilities. All he can do is take the truth and twist it into a lie. He’s been doing that since the Fall in Genesis, and the Bible tells us to not be ignorant of his devices.
Let’s not be ignorant. While we may not encounter people who call themselves Nicolaitans, the lies are alive and well. And out to destroy us. Here are four ways to watch out for modern-day Nicolaitans:
A person who seeks to use the ministry to gain money, fame, or notoriety. It still happens all the time in the church. We are not immune to dealing with false teachers and prophets in modern Christianity. Jesus said clearly that we would know them by their fruit (Matthew 7:15-20). Are they gathering people to themselves? Glorifying their own name? Are they leading people to become more committed to Christ alone or do they keep adding extra stuff to do or perform to be saved? These are the questions to ask.
A person who is controlling and power-hungry in the ministry. This goes along with #1; people who use the ministry of God to build their own kingdom aren’t part of the Kingdom of God (which can’t be shaken). Therefore, they are relying upon things that are temporary and unstable. That leads to insecurity and fear, and they see everything as a threat. In order to get the security they long for (and only available in relinquishing control to Jesus), they try to control things.
The acceptance of sexual immorality and perversion. Our culture continually sexualizes everything, in more and more perverse ways. Children are encountering porn at younger and younger ages through cell phones and more. Our culture normalizes the perversion, and the same heart of a Nicolaitan willingly participates in this sin, whether in private or public.
Worshipping idols. Idolatry doesn’t have to be a physical image of a false god. At its core, idolatry is the worship of our own hands. Our own selves, what we can produce, manufacture, and create. Paul wrote that “greed is idolatry” (Ephesians 5:5 & Colossians 3:5). Idolatry can be anything, even good things, placed before God on our priority list.
Our modern culture tempts us with these things and more. Will we be like Ephesus and stand in truth against these lies, loving all people to a saving relationship with Jesus? Or will we be like Pergamos and compromise, adopt the lies of our culture and slap God’s name on it, leading people down a path of destruction, which God hates?
Seems a simple answer, yet we must be firm and intentional in our stance. We must be wholehearted in our devotion to Christ and “take captive every thought” that exalts itself against the intimacy with a loving God (2 Corinthians 10:5).
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/Boonyachoat
Britt Mooney (with his amazing wife, Becca) has lived as a missionary in Korea, traveled for missions to several countries, and now lives in Suwanee GA as a church planter that works bi-vocationally with Phoenix Roasters, a missional coffee company. He has a podcast about the Kingdom of God called Kingdom Over Coffee and is a published author with Say Yes: How God-Sized Dreams Take Flight.