NICOLAITANS nĭk’ ə lā ə tənz (Νικολαιτής, -αί). A term appearing in the Revelation (2:6, 15) describing members of Christian congregations who held a doctrine that the Lord hated. Irenaeus said that they were followers of Nicolaus of Antioch, a proselyte who was among the seven men chosen to serve the Jerusalem congregation (Acts 6:5), who had forsaken true Christian doctrine; he said they lived in unrestrained indulgence (Against Heresies I; 26:3). Hippolytus confirmed this by noting that Nicolaus left correct doctrine and had the habit of indifference as to what a man ate and as to how he lived (Refutation of Heresies 7:24). The Apostolic Constitutions (6:8) described them as “shameless in uncleanness.” Although Clement of Alexandria defended Nicolaus by insisting that his followers had misunderstood him, he observed that the Nicolaitans abandoned themselves to pleasures like goats in a life of shameless self-indulgence (The Miscellianes 2:20).
In the letter to the church at Pergamum the Nicolaitans were associated closely with those people who held the teaching of Balaam. This may have been a play on words. “Nicolaitans” could have been derived from two Gr. words, nikan, which meant “to conquer” and laos, which meant “people.” Likewise Balaam could be derived from two Heb. words, bela which meant “to conquer” and ha’am, which meant “people.” Nicolaus and Balaam would then be the Gr. and Heb. forms of the same name, descriptive in each instance of an evil teacher who had influence over the people and brought them into bondage to heresy.
A story is recorded of the seduction of the Israelites into immoral and idolatrous unions wth the women of Moab (Num 25:1-5). Had this situation not been checked, Israel would have been destroyed as a nation. Numbers 31:16 attributed the success of this seduction of God’s people to the evil influence of a prophet named Balaam who advised Balak, king of Moab, to follow such a course of action. Balaam became, therefore, in Heb. history a symbol of an evil man who led God’s people into immorality and sin.
The letter to the church at Pergamum specifically charged them with having seduced people into eating meat offered to idols and into acts of fornication. The decree of the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:28, 29) had laid down also two specific conditions upon which Gentiles were to be admitted into Christian fellowship: they were to abstain from things offered to idols and from fornication. These were the very regulations which the Nicolaitans violated.
They were a people who used Christian liberty as an occasion for the flesh, against such Paul warned (Gal 5:13). The enticement to such a course of action was the pagan society in which Christians lived where eating meat offered to idols was common. Sex relations outside marriage were completely acceptable in such a society. The Nicolaitans attempted to establish a compromise with the pagan society of the Graeco-Roman world that surrounded them. The people most susceptible to such teaching were, no doubt, the upper classes who stood to lose the most by a separation from the culture to which they had belonged before conversion.
It may be that the doctrine of the Nicolaitans was dualistic. They prob. reasoned that the human body was evil anyway and only the spirit was good. A Christian, therefore, could do whatever he desired with his body because it had no importance. The spirit, on the other hand, was the recipient of grace which meant that grace and forgiveness were his no matter what he did. They were those ready to compromise with the world. They were judged by the author of Revelation to be most dangerous because the result of their teaching would have conformed Christianity to the world rather than have Christianity change the world. Eusebius indicated that this sect did not last very long, and in all probability the only knowledge of their teaching that is possible will be found in the slight references to them in Revelation.