Staff & Sling

Joseph E. Hébert, Ph.D.

98119 N 3745 Rd
Okemah, OK  74859
918 623 3078

The Doctrine of the Nicolaitans

"But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate," (Revelation 2: 6; Jesus speaking to the church at Ephesus).

"But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication. So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate," (Revelation 2: 14, 15; Jesus speaking to the church at Pergamos).

Who were the Nicolaitans? What were their deeds? What was their doctrine?

Many, if not most, scholars will tell you that the deeds/doctrine of the Nicolaitans was a sect of gnosticism, living licentiously (in sin). It is commonly accepted that the Nicolaitans embraced the behaviors and lifestyles of the pagans/heathen around them in order to fit in, believing that God was only interested in their souls/spirits and that their carnal flesh didn't matter.

But that is the doctrine of Balaam. And yes, God definitely hates the doctrine of Balaam. And yes, there are a number of scholars who will tell you that the doctrine of the Nicolaitans was just another name for the doctrine of Balaam. In fact, I've seen at least one reference that suggests "Nicolas" is just a helenized form of the name "Balaam." (Don't ask me how.)

I do not believe either of these is true. First of all I see no way to "helenize" the word "Balaam" into either "Nicolas" or "Nicolaitan." Nor do I see any way to latinize or even anglicize a similar transition. But more importantly, to hold that the two doctrines were the same thing is to deny scripture.

Right there, in Revelation 2: 15, we read the phrase "So hast thou also...," or "So hast thou [in addition to]...." Jesus is explicit that the two are separate and distinct things.

And while I'm on the subject of scholarly ideas that I do not accept, many scholars hold that the Nicolaitans are followers of Nicholas of Antioch, one of Jesus' disciples chosen to wait tables. Now there is no doubt that Nicholas of Antioch was a real person. He is named in Acts 6: 5. But nowhere in scripture do we find even a penumbral nexus between Nicolas of Antioch and the Nicolaitans (whoever they were).

In fact, I've found no one who can offer any historical nexus between the Nicolaitans and any particular individual Nicolas. Oh, I can find citations of several "church fathers" or scholars who believed it to be a reference to one or another Nicolas, but none that can say why.

So where does that leave us? Clearly Jesus warned us about the deeds and doctrine of the Nicolaitans. That tells me I should want to know what they were. And at the risk of being circularly redundant, it tells me that Jesus thought it important enough to warn us, which means He wants us to know.

It seems then, that if we want to know what the deeds and doctrines of the Nicolaitans were, we must first know who Nicolas was. But that information would seem to have been lost to history. So is that it? Was Jesus thwarted in this? Was His effort made of no effect?

That is not possible. So then, who was Nicolas?

Let's start by looking again to Revelation 2: 15. Notice that Jesus didn't say "Thou hast Nicolaitans." He said, "Thou hast them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans." Why the distinction? Are "them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans" not in fact "Nicolaitans?" Surely, if the Nicolaitans were ever so well and formally organized as to make a distinction between actual members and people who simply shared their beliefs, there would be a better historical record of just who and what they and their beliefs were. Right?

Notice that both times (in Revelation 2: 6 and 15) we read the phrase "of the Nicolaitans." In the Greek it is written "ton nikolaiton," (I am transliterating the Greek letters tau-omega-nu into t-o-n, and similarly for nikolaiton). Now if it were written "ton Athenon," this would be translated "of Athens," not "of the Athens." So why would "ton nikolaiton" be translated "of the Nicolaitans?" Why else, except because it was assumed that "nikolaiton" referred to followers of someone named Nicolas? But what if that assumption is wrong?

Remember now that in modern America, names are just labels by which we distinguish individuals, but in the context of history we are the odd ones out. By far, most peoples throughout history have seen names, not just as a label but as a description. So what if the word "nikolaiton" is not a reference to a person at all, but instead a description of the very deeds and doctrine it labels?

That would mean that Jesus wasn't thwarted by this person's identity being lost to history. It would mean that Jesus wasn't referring to the followers of a person at all, but was instead describing the very deeds and doctrine He professed to hate.

So what deeds and doctrine does the word "nicolaitan" describe? Suddenly there is no mystery. It is formed from the root words niko, meaning conqueror, and laitan, meaning people. Thus, nicolaitan means conqueror (or ruler) of people.

So what if this doctrine of the Nicolaitans is simply the idea that the church's role is to rule over people, to govern them. It certainly wouldn't be a stretch to think that even some 1st Century disciples thought they should work to establish Jesus' kingdom. The original twelve expected no less, even to the point of arguing who would have the higher station. And I don't know anyone who doesn't believe that Jesus will someday rule, even in this world. So why wouldn't His church work to establish His kingdom?

Because He didn't ordain the church to establish His kingdom. He ordained His church to make disciples of the people of this world. He will establish His own kingdom, and He will do so at the time of His own choosing. In the meantime, we all know how He feels about people insinuating themselves, intruding into things He didn't intend for them.

Now consider this in the context of the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3. Yes, the seven letters were addressed to seven physical churches contemporary to John. They were indeed seven literal local congregations. But the letters weren't addressed to those respective congregations exclusively.

This is made plain by the repeated admonition, "He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches." This statement addresses individuals, i.e. "he," and "him." And that the word "churches" is plural makes explicit that all of the letters are intended for all.

Thus I believe there are two ways to understand and "hear" each of the letters. First they can legitimately be understood individually, as seven standalone messages. In this context they are warnings for every individual Christian (and every local congregation), admonitions about varied spiritually backslidden and errant states one could find oneself in.

But I also believe they can be understood as a whole. In this context they form a foreshadowing prophecy of the history of the church age, from Jesus' ascension to His return. And in this context it becomes clear that these doctrines, of the Nicolaitans and Balaam, combine to lead directly from the 1st Century church to the age of Constantine (Pergamos), and eventually to the complete absorption into (and eventual succession of) the (Holy) Roman Empire (Thyatira).

So what can we conclude from this understanding of the doctrine of the Nicolaitans? At the risk of being trite, that God intended a separation of church and state long before Jefferson and Adams were born. We should consciously remember that this world is not our home. We should focus on doing what Jesus told us to do and nothing more.

That's not to say that we shouldn't vote. It's not even to say that you shouldn't run for public office if that's what the Lord leads you to do. But it does mean that neither the government nor the church should intrude into the others' responsibilities. And while secular affairs can (and should) be administered from Judeo-Christian values, at no time should we seek a theocratic form of government.

In other words, God ordained secular governments to do certain things (punishing wrongdoers, common defense), His church to do others (healing the sick, feeding the poor, making disciples), and other things He has retained to Himself (regenerating/reforming men, establishing His kingdom). And we should all stick to doing what God intended. (See also Taking the Law Into Your Own Hands).