Helpful Tidbits for Organic Church Life                                                 March 2, 2009
Doctrine of the Nicolaitans
My Reflections
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Dear ,
Other than reading about them in the Bible, the first time I had heard (to my recollection) about the Nicolaitans was in Wolfgang Simson's book, Houses That Change the World. Although I've kept the topic in the back of my mind, the doctrine of the Nicolaitans has popped up twice in recent weeks. First, my dad sent me an article (excerpt below). Second, Neil Cole covered the topic at a recent conference I attended.

THIS WEEK'S QUESTION/TOPIC: What to do with the doctrine of the Nicolaitans?
Doctrine of the Nicolaitans
Excerpt from Latter Rain Website, by Ray Atkinson


The doctrine of the Nicolaitans was mentioned in the Apocalypse of John to the churches of Pergamos and Ephesus of the seven churches of Asia in Revelation 2. It is a symbolic name of a party that represents the hierarchy of a ruling class over the rest of the people, developing a pecking order of fleshly leadership. Jesus hates this and warns the people to repent or else "I will come upon you quickly and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth." The same warning illustration is applied to those that abused grace, which led to licentiousness from the example of Balaam, seducing Christians to fornication and tampering with idolatry. The individual overcomer is allowed to eat of the hidden manna and given a white stone with a new name written in it.
The Early church father Iranaeus, identified the Nicolaitans in his treatise "Against Heresies" in the second century as they who are an "offshoot of the knowledge which is falsely so-called," mentioning that they "lead lives of unrestrained indulgence." There is no absolute proof that the heretic Nicolas was the Deacon of the same name from Antioch of the seven deacons in the book of Acts, but Iranaeus supposed him to be so. Ignatius mentions the Nicolaitans also, so there was in fact a heretical group existing at that time. Nicolas the deacon was perhaps confused with another Nicolas, the bishop Nicolas of Samaria who was a heretic in the company of Simon Magus.
The root of the word Nicolaitans comes from Greek nikao, to conquer or overcome, and laos, which means people and which the word laity comes from. The two words together especially means the destruction of the people and refers to the earliest form of what we call a priestly order or clergy which later on in church history divided people and allowed for leadership other than those led by the spirit of the risen Lord. A good translation of Nicolaitan would be "those who prevail over the people." This clerical system later developed into the papal hierarchy of priests and clergy lording over the flock. The Council of Trent stated, "If anyone shall say that there is not in the Catholic Church a hierarchy established by the divine ordination, consisting of bishops, presbyters and ministers, let him be anathema." It is not the question of the ministries but rather in the separation of them into a hierarchy over the people. This very idea was taken over by the Protestants with their own corruption of leadership roles and coverings. The Church of Ephesus was commended for hating the deeds of the Nicolaitans.
The Banqueting Table does not, necessarily, endorse the Latter Rain movement.
My Reflections
I'm not entirely sure what to think of the Nicolaitans. Like I said, I remember reading about them in Simson's book, but decided to leave any study of the Nicolaitans for a later time. I do remember, however, writing in the margin of my book, "Antichrist?" Looking back, I remember thinking to myself, I wonder if that's why Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins named their antagonist Nicolae? I also remember thinking, I've heard some suggest that the papacy is antichrist; might that concept also extend to the protestant understanding of clergy?
At this point, I don't really want to rehash what's already been said about these illusive Nicolaitans. Briefly, however, there are two theories. First, there's the clergy-laity divide as outlined in the article above. Second, some contend that the Nicolaitans were followers of Nicolas (Acts 6:5), a sect that "sought to introduce into the church a false freedom or licentiousness, thus abusing Paul's doctrine of grace (Easton's Bible Dictionary, 2003). For more on all this, check out Neil Cole's recent blog entry.
Now, here's the reason I'm writing about this topic. Apparently, God hates the Nicolaitan practices. So, it stands to reason that we'd better get to the bottom of all this (if it's possible). Until then, I'm recommending we stay clear of both theoretical assertions: the clergy-laity divide and the false doctrines propagated by Nicolas. My logic runs along the when-does-life-begin? lines; why would anyone terminate a pregnancy if they were uncertain of when life begins? If one were to err, wouldn't it be wise to err on the side of life? (I believe the Bible is clear that life begins at conception, by the way.)
People, I've found, have a tendency to do what's convenient until something's certain. And I have to believe that's why God keeps some things vague. At times, I think God tests us to see how we err: on the side of life or death?, on the side of mutual submission or power?
In a recent phone conversation I asked one of my "clergy" friends what they thought of the clergy-laity divide, especially in light of Jesus's hating the Nicolaitan practices. He told me, "Well, I don't really subscribe to the divide. It doesn't exist in Scripture." "So," I asked him, "what are you going to do about it?" He replied, "I don't know." My exhortation? Let's try to know, no matter our ministry context. Apparently, it's really important.
Hope this was of some benefit to you.

Traver Dougherty
The Banqueting Table