Issue #73 -------
September 30, 2003
The day we see the truth and cease
to speak is the day we begin to die.
--- Martin Luther King, Jr.
In Revelation 2:6 Jesus commends the disciples in the city of Ephesus for "hating the deeds of the Nicolaitans," which our Lord then states He also hates. Later, in verse 15, He declares His displeasure with the saints in Pergamum because "you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans." In Ephesus this group was quickly turned away, which elicited the commendation of the ascended Christ. In Pergamum, however, the Nicolaitans were seemingly welcomed, and even embraced, thus incurring our Lord's condemnation.
Who were the Nicolaitans? What did they believe? From whence did they come? These are just a few of the many questions which have been repeatedly asked for centuries, and the answers are neither quickly nor easily perceived. The reason for this, at least in part, is because this group is mentioned by name only twice in the entire Bible (Revelation 2:6,15).
Some biblical scholars have stated, in a rather general way, that this group was simply a small, insignificant sect within the early church who held to some rather strange beliefs. They surfaced here and there, and then eventually died out altogether without causing much of a stir. Others identify them as an early Gnostic group --- Gnosticism being one of the major heresies which plagued the Lord's church during the first few centuries. Some feel they were a group of Christians opposed to any form of law governing their activities, since a similar list of antinomian practices were proscribed by the Jerusalem Conference (Acts 15:20,29; 21:25). Still others suggest they were really just worshippers of Baal who were going by a different name to protect themselves from persecution. Some scholars "tend to interpret the name symbolically as a wordplay on the name Balaam (Rev. 2:14-15). That name can be construed as a contracted form of the Hebrew bala'am = 'he destroyed the people,' and so parallels the name Nicolaus = 'conqueror of the people.' Balaam was traditionally associated with antinomian practices during this period -- 2 Peter 2:15; cf. Jude 11" (Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, p. 964). A few scholars even maintain that no such group ever existed. The term "Nicolaitan," they claim, was merely a symbol or figure employed by the Lord, and was never intended to be taken literally by the readers of the Revelation.
As already noted, the Bible itself says very little about the Nicolaitans. To discover more about them one must appeal to various extra-biblical writers of that period. These early church authors are often referred to as the Apostolic Fathers. Although these men were not inspired of God, as is often clearly evident in their writings, nevertheless they are a valuable source of information and insight concerning the history and practices of the early church. Thus, biblical scholarship relies rather heavily upon them for much of its knowledge about this period of church history.
To begin our study, we must try to determine the origin of this group. From whence did they come? Who was their founder? What special circumstances caused such a group to be formed? As one might imagine, there are numerous theories in which much speculation is made as to the origin of the Nicolaitans. The prevailing theory, however, is that this group was founded by a man named Nicolaus, the same Nicolaus who was listed as one of the seven Spirit-filled men chosen to oversee a special ministry in the Jerusalem church. "And they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmanas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch" (Acts 6:5).
Many early church writers feel it was this particular proselyte of Antioch who eventually departed from the faith and adversely influenced others with his strange and deadly doctrine. About a hundred years after the writing of Revelation, an early church writer by the name of Hippolytus wrote: "Nicolaus, as one of the seven (that were chosen) for the deaconate, was appointed by the Apostles. (But Nicolaus) departed from correct doctrine, and was in the habit of inculcating indifferency of both life and food. And when the disciples (of Nicolaus) continued to offer insult to the Holy Spirit, John reproved them in the Apocalypse as fornicators and eaters of things offered unto idols."
About two hundred years later, John Cassian wrote: "We need never .... wonder that some bad and detestable men have secretly found their way into the number of the saints. If we bear in mind that Satan was chosen among the angels, and Judas among the apostles, and Nicolaus the author of a detestable heresy among the deacons, it will be no wonder that the basest of men are found among the ranks of the saints."
Thus, we soon discover that many of the early church writers held to the view that this previously highly favored man, who had been appointed by the apostles to a position of responsibility and trust in the Jerusalem church, had not lived up to his calling, and, indeed, had become an apostate! Though he is condemned by many, the evidence basically comes from a single source --- a brief story told by Clement of Alexandria (about a hundred years after the writing of Revelation) and recorded for us by Eusebius:
As one can see from this ancient account, Clement defends Nicolaus and his actions, declaring that it was his passion for Christ, not the flesh, that led him to do what he did. Now, whether Nicolaus ever actually performed such an act or not is impossible to say. But, even if he did, this is no proof that he founded such a group as the Nicolaitans, which apparently practiced acts of immorality. Indeed, Clement argues that he did not!
If the above described act did occur, however, it is possible that some who might have witnessed it, or who perhaps later heard the story recounted, may have misinterpreted this event to mean that immorality was acceptable. After all, here was a "Spirit-filled Deacon" in the church offering his wife to the congregation! Thus, it must be okay! Right? .... or, so they rationalized.
It is also possible that as this early heretical group grew and developed, perhaps adopting other questionable practices as well, it may have adopted for itself the name of Nicolaus. It was a common practice among early heretics to take the name of an apostle, or one of their associates, in an effort to try and gain respectability for themselves and their doctrines and practices. This is probably the case with the Nicolaitans, as a great many early church writers suggest. Eusebius, for example, says that "these persons made their boast of Nicolaus." Ignatius of Antioch (martyred in Rome just twenty years after the time of Revelation) twice makes mention of the Nicolaitans as impostors, saying they are "falsely so called." In other words, they have taken the name falsely; the Nicolaus of Acts 6:5 having no connection with this heresy.
After examining every reference to this heretical group in the writings of the Church Fathers, and weighing the evidence, it is my studied conclusion that the Nicolaitans were not directly founded by the Nicolaus mentioned in Acts 6:5. Rather, the evidence suggests this group adopted his name in hopes of lending a degree of respectability and acceptance to their doctrines and practices.
THEIR BELIEFS & TEACHINGS
What was it about this group that caused them to be so detestable in the sight of the Lord, and also in the sight of the church at Ephesus? What exactly did they believe and teach and practice that generated such feelings of abhorrence? Although the early church writers disagreed on who founded the Nicolaitans and how they came by their name, there is little to no disagreement on what they taught and believed.
Apparently, they were very similar to the Balaamites of the OT, in that they committed acts of immorality (fornication) and they ate meat that had been offered to idols. In Rev. 2:14-15 the Lord makes this connection plain: "You have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit acts of immorality. You also have some who in the same way hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans."
It is also likely that Jezebel, whom Jesus condemns in the epistle to Thyatira, was a member of the Nicolaitans, for Rev. 2:20 says, "she teaches and leads my bond-servants astray, so that they commit acts of immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols." These are the same offenses earlier condemned as practices of the Nicolaitans.
None of the earlier church writers (or later ones, for that matter) have anything good to say about the beliefs or practices of this group. The Constitutions of the Holy Apostles states that "those who are falsely called Nicolaitans, are impudent in uncleanness." Tertullian (with regard to marriage) says, "The Nicolaitans, in their maintenance of lust and luxury, destroy the happiness of sanctity." Irenaeus writes, "they lead lives of unrestrained indulgence," and teach "it is a matter of indifference to practice adultery, and to eat things sacrificed to idols." Ignatius brands them as "lovers of pleasure, and given to slanderous speeches." He also says that they "affirm that unlawful unions are a good thing, and place the highest happiness in pleasure."
A question which comes immediately to mind at this point is: How could a group of individuals in the early church hold to such beliefs and practices and still profess to be followers of Jesus Christ?! Would they not see the inconsistency? The answer apparently is that, like Balaam, they were self-deceived and self-deluded. This caused them to gloss over their obvious wickedness, and to dress it up so as to make it more acceptable to both themselves and those around them. Contributing to this state of self-deception is the fact that they may also have been misinterpreting a passage from one of the epistles of Paul --- "ALL things are lawful for me" (1 Cor. 6:12). Paul later writes:
The Nicolaitans, having possibly misunderstood this and other related passages ..... or perhaps having intentionally perverted them ..... declared themselves free in Christ to do as they pleased, regardless of who was hurt or who was offended. This even included committing acts of immorality! After all, hadn't Paul said, "ALL things are lawful for me"?
This may all seem rather absurd to us, even hard to believe, yet one won't have a great deal of difficulty finding those in the church today who, at least in principle if not in fact, hold to these same Nicolaitan beliefs! These are those who see nothing wrong with a certain amount of compromise with the world about them, with becoming more and more worldly in nature and practice, while still claiming to be faithful disciples of Christ! Such compromise is nothing short of that ancient Nicolaitan heresy raising it ugly head in a modern setting!
A scholar by the name of Fiorenaz makes the following observation:
In the same way, our salvation in Christ, and our faith, is not truly demonstrated to others or made stronger by trying to prove that we can wallow in the world and still come away appearing to be clean! Rather, it is displayed by rejecting the activities of the world, and by living in such a way that we might be presented to the Bridegroom as a "pure virgin" (2 Cor. 11:2).
CIRCUMSTANCES LEADING TO NICOLAITANISM
Another question which arises at this point is: Were there possibly certain circumstances in these cities of Asia Minor which may have given rise to these doctrines ... or made it profitable and even advisable (from an earthly perspective) to embrace them? Although this heresy didn't catch on in Ephesus, it did in Pergamum and possibly Thyatira. What was there in these two cities which may have been conducive to the growth of Nicolaitanism?
When one examines a map of the region, it will become clear that Pergamum and Thyatira are very close to one another; only about thirty miles apart. Both are located in the northern part of the land and are separated geographically from the other five cities mentioned in Revelation. The real key to our understanding, however, is that these two cities were very trade-guild oriented. These guilds were somewhat similar to the labor unions of today. The guilds were also very pleasure oriented, idols were worshipped during the meetings, food was offered to the idols and consumed, and there were also wild, immoral parties for the members so that they could "loosen up" and become happier, more productive workers. Ramsay, in his book The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia, writes:
Undoubtedly, many members of the early church made their living at a trade which required that they be members of a certain trade-guild, and to be a member meant attending the meetings and taking an active part so as not to be viewed unfavorably by the guild. To be viewed unfavorably could lead to dismissal from the guild, which meant loss of one's profession and source of income. A person could literally go from riches to rags depending on how he or she was viewed by the guild. Thus, Christians were faced with a problem. This was compounded by the fact that at these meetings not only were there sacrifices made to idols (and all members were required to participate), but there was also drinking and open sexual activity. It was considered the duty of the members to participate.
From a worldly point of view, these guilds were just trying to help their members be better employees. It wasn't viewed as sinful or immoral. In fact, these acts were regarded as religious acts. Sacrifices to various gods were made during the meetings, and the services of temple prostitutes were engaged.
What was the Christian worker to do?! Many, obviously, quit their guilds, and in so doing lost their ability to earn an income at their chosen profession. They were willing to make this sacrifice, however, in order to remain faithful to their Lord. Some, however, were not willing to go that far. Thus, they needed to find a way to rationalize their continued involvement in the practices of the guild. This they did by proclaiming themselves "free in Christ." Many perhaps reasoned: If we stay in the guild and continue our association with these people, we might be able to influence them to accept Christ. Others began to teach that it was really only the physical body (the flesh) which was actually engaging in the immoral practices anyway, so as long as they remained pure in spirit then God would accept them. This latter view was a definite reflection of the Gnostic teaching of the first century, perhaps also reflective of a twisting of Paul's statement in Romans 7:14f about the conflict of the two natures.
With all of this "logic" at their disposal, their consciences were eased, and they viewed themselves as members in good standing both of the church and of the guild --- and apparently the church in both of these cities did not strongly enough disagree with this view, for Jesus not only condemns those who were involved in this compromise with the world, but He also condemns the congregations for tolerating it!!
The evidence, both biblical and extra-biblical, seems to clearly point to the fact that the group known as the Nicolaitans arose from (1) a perceived need of a few early Christians to conform to their society to some extent for their own survival, and (2) from a willingness to pervert certain apostolic teachings in an attempt to justify their conformity. Perhaps this group can best be described, in the words of Fiorenaz, as "a Christian libertine group within the churches of Asia Minor." They viewed themselves to be at liberty to compromise with the world.
It appears that this group did not long survive ... at least, not in as open and recognizable a form as it had at first. According to Eusebius, the Nicolaitans "arose for a very brief time ... and in less time than it takes to say it, were completely extinguished."
The word "Nicolaitan" itself, however, lasted for many centuries. In time, it came to be freely applied to those who were the object of the user's contempt. It came to have much the same connotation as "Judas" has for some -- characterizing one as a traitor.
In the Middle Ages, for example, the word was used by the Roman Catholic Church to describe those priests who approved of clerical marriage. Hastings, in his dictionary, writes:
Even today the term has not died out completely. Occasionally one will still hear the term applied by one opponent to another. Recently, for example, one church leader castigated all "liberals" as being "Nicolaitans." Nicolaitanism, thus, was being equated to Liberalism. Another religious leader recently condemned the celebrating of Christmas as the "Nicolaitan heresy." His logic was that this holiday is associated with "St. Nicolas" -- or Santa Claus!
It is my conviction that the "Nicolaitan heresy" has never truly died. It still exists in the church today just as much as it did in the early church ... if not more! The belief among some in the Body of Christ that they are free in Christ to engage in sinful practices, that they can successfully serve two masters, that they can acceptably compromise with the world and still be "Christians in good standing," has never really left us! Such compromisers still attempt to twist God's Word in an effort to justify their sinful practices. And, sadly, we, in the church, still too often continue to tolerate them in our midst.
In Christianity there can be NO compromise with the world about us, regardless of what sacrifices one may be called upon to make! The message to the early church by our Lord applies just as much today as it did in the first century .... for the danger is just as great!
From a Reader in East Texas:
Dear Brother Maxey, I just discovered your web site today as a result of my habit of seeing where various links might lead me. I started out seeking information on Florida College .... discovered a sub-category titled "Progressive Movement," and that led me to your insightful web site. I think this chain of events may qualify as God moving in a mysterious way, because it is very encouraging to me to find other brethren of like mind. It is also wonderful and soul-thrilling for me to find a Church of Christ minister who is so open-minded. Thank you for having the courage to make your well-reasoned views available to us all on your web site. I pray many narrow-minded brethren will be moved to carefully pay attention to your many valid points, and that the Lord's Body will see much healing of the rifts and tears that have troubled our fellowship for so long. Thank you once again for expressing in clear, reasoned and precise language what I hope and feel many members of our fellowship have been thinking in our hearts. Please keep up your wonderful service to all of our brothers and sisters in Christ!
From a Reader in Nevada:
Brother Al, I wrote you the note regarding cremation recently from Las Vegas. Thank you very much for your answer at that time, and especially for the Reflections article this date. Although my mind was settled on the idea of cremation, your article certainly answers any questions on the matter. Thank you very much! How on earth do you find the time for all of your research and writing in conjunction with your other responsibilities? You have my greatest admiration and respect. Your thoroughness on subjects leaves little room for debate. I do appreciate you and thank God for you and your abilities.
From a Reader in Texas:
Brother Al, I believe you are the most even-handed expositor of Scripture I have ever read. The test: all seemingly pro and con Scriptures are presented with no editorial comment. Then you state what you believe from the study, and invite the reader to think it through for himself. This, of course, has to be the most effective way to handle issues that are not completely defined by Scripture. Again, thank you, and may God keep that clear mind in the arena for many years to come!
From a Reader in Indiana:
I'm recently removed from a very legalistic Church of Christ environment and have now moved into what I guess would be categorized as a mainstream Church of Christ. Meanwhile, the congregation where I previously attended is for the most part demanding that a wonderful elderly couple divorce due to the man's previous marriage history. We (the couple and I) have a very good relationship, and they have asked to study with me. I think your book -- Down, But Not Out -- would serve as an excellent study as I attempt to help them work through this situation. With your permission, I would like to print off a copy from your web site. Thanks. I look forward to your reply.
From a Reader in Oklahoma:
I have never felt there was anything wrong with cremation. If God disapproved of it He would have given us a clear and explicit command. We in the Church of Christ spend too much time massaging the Scriptures to determine what is the exact, detailed, legalistic position on anything. If it was that important, don't you think God would have given us clear instructions? By the way, cremation is $1,000 while a complete funeral is $5-6,000 in this area.
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