In the Book of Revelation, the Lord addresses the Church in Pergamum, “Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality. Likewise, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.” (Revelations 02:14-15). Nicolaitans are also mentioned in the epistle to the Church in Ephesus. “But you have this in your favour: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate (Revelation 2:6).” So who were the Nicolaitans, and how did they bring upon themselves the wrath of God?
We find references to the Nicolaitans in the works of the Early Christian writers of the 2nd – 4th centuries. Holy Martyr Irenaeus of Lyon, Holy Martyr Hippolytus of Rome, and the Holy Venerable Jerome asserted that the sect of the Nicolaitans was founded by Nicholas of Antioch, one of the seven deacons ordained by the apostles, as written in Chapter 6 of the Book of Acts. According to these saints, Nicholas was jealous of his wife because of her beauty. When the apostles rebuked him for being overly jealous, he went to another extreme. He began to advocate wife sharing, debauchery and adultery. Also, Nicholas and his followers consumed the food sacrificed to the idols. To justify his behaviour, Nicholas taught that the only way to gain control of one’s sensuality and desires was by satisfying one’s passions. In his work “Panarion”, Bishop Epiphanius of Salamis supplements this description of Nicholaitism with a somewhat different narrative of his fall. According to Epiphanius, Nicholas was impressed by the examples of righteous men. He abstained from intimacy with his wife but succumbed to the temptation of lust. To justify himself, he began to teach that whoever was not satisfying his lust each day would not have everlasting life in eternity.
Conversely, Clement of Alexandria portrayed Nicholas as a righteous and reserved man and insisted that his self-proclaimed disciples had distorted his words. When he wrote about ‘abusing the flesh’ he meant that one should never allow to give in to licentious pleasure, and to this end, one should practise strict abstention. But the heretics distorted this meaning and made it seem that he had meant giving in indiscriminately to sensual pleasures and drives. Eusebius of Caesarea, a known church historian, agreed. He suggested that the Nicolaitans were trying to add weight to their heresy by falsely naming Nicholas as its founder and emphasising that he was one of the seven deacons ordained by the Apostles.
It is also possible that his teaching was not related either to Deacon Nicholas or to any other person by that name. In the scripture, Nicholaitism is mentioned alongside the teaching of Balaam that advocated adultery and the eating of the food sacrificed to the idols (Revelation 2:14 – 15), while the name Nicholas is the Greek equivalent of the Jewish name Balaam. Etymologically, both words derive from two identical roots in Greek and Hebrew meaning “people” and “conquer”. That might suggest a similarity between Balaam from the Book of Numbers and Nicholas from the Book of Revelation.
Acknowledging this parallel between the two characters, Tertullian wrote that just like Balaam had enticed into sin the sons of Israel by allowing them to marry the daughters of the Pagans, so did Nicholas by allowing Christians to consume the food sacrificed to idols and participate in Pagan feasts. Nicholas’ heresy also has features of Gnosticism, concerned with finding a compromise between the world and the faith and mixing Christianity with Paganism. The Book of Revelation also mentions other false teachings on a par with the teachings of Nicholas, which also have elements of Gnosticism, such as the false teachings of Jezebel (Revelation 02:20-24). The Lord forewarns the followers of those teachings who do not repent of harsh consequences, comparing them to “a synagogue of Satan.”
In general, the followers of Nicholaitism adhere to the following teachings hateful to God: giving in to bodily passions, of which adultery is the worst, and pursuit of worldly pleasures to the neglect of the Christian faith. As a heresy, Nicholaitism did not spread much before its disappearance according to the word of God. Yet its elements are still found in the unconventional teachings that condone the pleasures of the flesh and delights of the world that go against the teachings of the true faith. Examples include acceptance of unmarried partnerships, same-sex marriages and polygamy, or the ordination of women. Many of these ideas have gained traction especially in some of the newer churches. Without a shadow of a doubt, they continue to call themselves apostolic and loyal to the true faith in the same way as the Nicolaitans ascribed their teaching to Deacon Nicholas, ordained by the Apostles.