The Teaching of the Nicolaitans
One of the most evil sects in church history was the Nicolaitans. Its members used the name of Jesus to gain wealth, power and prestige. They caused spiritual death and destruction in the name of Christ.
Jesus (Yeshua) condemned them in Revelation two, saying He hated their teaching and deeds. Early church fathers such as Irenaeus, Tertullian and Hippolytus believed that this sect was founded by Nicolas.
The word Nicolaitans is derived from two Hebrew words: bala, to destroy, and am, a people. It is the same root used for the word Balaam, which also means to destroy a people.
Early church fathers, such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, Hippolytus of Rome, and Epiphanius, linked the Nicolaitans to sexual immorality and idolatry. They warned that if believers allowed the Nicolaitans into their lives, they would find themselves in spiritual ruin.
The Nicolaitans taught that Christians should not be separate from the world but rather should conform Christianity to the culture around them. They promoted a church hierarchy that gave the clergy privileges and power over the lay people, which ultimately caused a split between the two groups. Sadly, many of the same teachings of the Nicolaitans still persist in the modern church. We will look at three main doctrinal beliefs of the Nicolaitans, their practices, and their deeds. We will then see how these doctrines and practices lead to spiritual ruin.
The Nicolaitans were a sect of the church who were practicing a doctrine that Jesus hated. This teaching taught that it was okay to have a foot in the world and to indulge in sinful practices. This teaching lowered God’s standards and resulted in a defeated, worldly type of Christianity.
Several of the early church fathers, including Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Hippolytus, identified this group as followers of Nicolas, the first deacon to be ordained in Jerusalem (Acts 6:5). They believed that Christian liberty gave them leeway to practice idolatry and sexual immorality.
It is important to note that the word Nicolaitans is derived from two Greek words, nikos (“power” or “strength”) and lai (“people”). So the name means literally conquering the people. It is quite an appropriate name for a group that was teaching a heretical doctrine that would lead to compromising with the culture around them and engaging in sinful practices.
Nicolaitans believed in a dualistic view of life. They believed that the body was evil, but the spirit was good and that God only cared about the spirit, not the physical. Thus, a Christian could do whatever they wanted to the body because it wasn’t important.
Similarly, the Nicolaitans believed that a Christian’s works were more important than their beliefs or spiritual growth. Thus, a person could eat things sacrificed to idols and practice adultery because it wasn’t sinful.
These teachings are a direct violation of Jesus’ warning to the churches in Ephesus and Pergamum. He calls on them to repent or face severe punishment (Revelation 2:16–15). Church fathers such as Irenaeus, Epiphanius, and Hippolytus all agree that this sect was led by Nicolas, one of the seven first servant/deacons appointed by the apostles. Irenaeus even explains that the name Nicolaitans comes from two greek words: nikos, meaning “to conquer” or “subdue,” and laos, meaning people.
The Nicolaitans are described as having done many detestable things, but little is known of them outside of the Book of Revelation. Some say they were a group of licentious antinomian Gnostics, while others cite them as followers of Nicolaus, one of the seven first ordained to the diaconate by the apostles, who led a life of unrestrained indulgence. This view has support from Tertullian, Hippolytus, Dorotheus of Tyre, and Jerome.
Another view ties them to the teaching of Balaam, who advocated compromising the Word with pagan practices. This may also be based on the etymology of their name, which is derived from the Greek words nikan (power) and laitan (people).
Both teachings encourage believers to compromise with their surrounding culture by lowering God’s standards, encouraging sin, and leaving them vulnerable to deception. This erodes their sanctification and weakens the power of the Cross, and Jesus warns that He can withdraw His kingly-political, priestly, pastoral, or administrative favor from such groups.