jQuery Slider

You are here

Nicolaitanism: That Mysterious Heresy

Nicolaitanism: That Mysterious Heresy

Bruce Atkinson, PhD
May 27, 2024

The basic 'mysteries' of the gospel may sound strange to the untrained ears of unbelievers, for example, God becoming a man and suffering/dying for the sins of the people... and His being the only valid sacrifice which could save them. Or, the most frequent sacrament of Christian worship is the Lord's Supper/Eucharist/Mass, where members partake symbolically (and some think it is more than just symbolic) of His body and blood (through the consecrated bread and wine), thus celebrating their spiritual unity with Him. But these mysteries are ones which believers are enabled to understand by the Holy Spirit at a fairly deep level. And there are other gospel mysteries; for example, the Apostle Paul wrote this to the church at Ephesus:
The mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ. In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs [with the Hebrew patriarchs], are members of the same body and sharers in the promise [of salvation] in Christ Jesus through the gospel. (Ephesians 3:3-6)

And yet we can also find in the scriptures some brief (and sometimes very strange) references to things which are never fully explained, like in Genesis 6:4, the race of giants (Nephilim) who died out in the great flood and the "sons of God" (angels?) who spawned them. A mystery indeed. And in the New Testament we hear of a heretical group called Nicolaitans that existed within some of the earliest churches. But the exact errors of the Nicolaitans are never named, even though the group is referenced twice. This article examines briefly the evidence and reveals the three most frequently cited hypotheses regarding this heretical group.

The two vague biblical references to the Nicolaitans are found (only) in Revelations 2:6 & 2:15 (see below). Note that Revelations 2 and 3 are those chapters where Jesus (through John) rebukes, warns, and encourages seven churches in western Asia. Only two of these churches did not receive some serious criticism from our Lord (the persecuted church at Smyrna and the small, weak but welcoming church at Philadelphia). The rest had some major spiritual and moral issues.

"Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate." (Rev. 2:6, in Jesus' words to the church at Ephesus)

"So also you have some who hold the teaching of lthe Nicolaitans. Therefore repent." (Rev. 2:15, in Jesus' words to the church at Pergamum)

No one today truly knows what their errors were, it is all conjecture, and very few of the "experts" on heresy have written much about this group. There is simply very little information available.

But there are a few interesting and suggestive hints to be found in the Greek word used in these passages, i.e., nikolaitēs (nικολαΐτης), which has a number of possible meanings in this context. Listed below are the three hypotheses which have been proposed by different theological commentators.

Option #1

The first possibility is the one that most church historians would support. It comes from the fact that the Greek word nikolaitēs (nικολαΐτης) can mean (among other things) "follower of Nicolaus." In those days, one such Nicolaus was a well-known heretic. The earliest Christian writer who referenced this individual was Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130--202 AD), who thought that the Nicolaitans were followers of Nicolaus of Antioch, a disciple who was among the seven men chosen to serve the Jerusalem congregation (Acts 6:5)--but who had forsaken true Christian doctrine. In his writings (Against Heresies I; 26:3) Irenaeus associated Nicolaus with the gnostic antinomian heretic Cerinthus. He indicated that the Nicolaitans attempted to establish a compromise between the church and the immoral society of the Greco-Roman world that surrounded them. They were accused by Irenaeus of pushing sexual license and other pagan practices. Years later, the writings of Tertullian (c. 155-240 AD) and Hippolytus of Rome (c. 170-235 AD) echoed the opinion of Irenaeus. Apparently, the Nicolaitans were similar in their worldly and libertine views to those of today's Episcopal Church.

Parenthetical notes:
1. This heretical "Nicolaus" was not the St. Nicholas (bishop of Myra) who died hundreds of years later (343 AD). The latter sainted bishop was the one who has been immortalized to children in legends...as Santa Claus.

2. In the Middle Ages in the Roman Catholic Church, the word 'nicolaitanism' was resuscitated to refer to the practice of non-celibacy among the clergy... to the extent that they were keeping concubines. This term no doubt was taken from the simple fact that the two references to Nicolaitanism in Revelation were mentioned in close proximity to other passages which condemned sins of sexual immorality. Apparently, it was assumed by these Roman church leaders that these two passages naming Nicolaitans referred to the same libertine behaviors as the Jezebel group (Rev. 2:20-21) and other antinomians in the earliest churches.

Option #2

Some theologians and translators believe that the Nicolaitans were not named after any man, but from the similar Greek word nicolah, which means "let us eat." This may be associated with eating food offered to idols--which was a common problem in the earliest churches.

The phrase "food offered (or sacrificed) to idols" appears ten times in the New Testament. The first mention is in Acts 15 where the Jerusalem Council issued the decree to the Gentile believers that they were to "abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourself from these, you do well" (15:29, NKJV).

Note that two of these ten references are also found in the critical letters addressed to the seven churches of Asia Minor (e.g., Rev 2:14, 20). In the first example, the letter to Pergamum, the Lord seems to separate the two... that is, there are those who ate food sacrificed to idols (and who also practiced sexual immorality), and then there were the Nicolaitans:
14 "But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice
sexual immorality. 15 So also you have some who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans."
[my emphasis]

This suggests that the two heretical groups were not the same. Apparently the Nicolaitans perpetrated different heresies and/or immoralities than either eating food sacrificed to idols or sexual immorality. So this leads to the obvious question: what were their great errors?

Option #3

"Nikolaitēs" may be derived from the Greek words nikos and laos. Nikos means "conqueror" or "ruler," and laos (from which we get laity) means "people." Thus, Nicolaitanism has been interpreted by Protestants as a form of hyper-clericalism, the early tendency in Rome, Constantinople, and Alexandria for priests to "rule over laity" in an extreme and often abusive way. As I have shown before, Jesus was clearly critical of any development of a ruling clerical caste or of elevating the social status of his servant-leaders (see Mark 10:42-44, Luke 22:25-26, and Matthew 23:5-12). And we also have Peter's definition of the priesthood as consisting of ALL believers in 1 Peter 2:4-5,9. But the early church ignored the words of the Lord and went ahead and constructed a hierarchy (like the Roman caste system and military), an elite and privileged priesthood with ruling power over laity. In disobeying our Lord, it became an institutionalized heresy in both the Roman and Greek churches.


Due to the way the errors of the Nicolaitans are separated in the text from the sins of sexual immorality and eating food offered to idols, my best guess (as a Reformed Anglican) is that the hypothesis described in #3 above is the correct one regarding the primary error of the Nicolaitans. However, each option describes heresies which truly existed at the time, and two of them remain hugely popular errors today in certain denominations (i.e., sexual immorality and hyper-clericalism).

Here is a crucial point which we can underline with regard to all such heretical errors and immoralities. It is inappropriate to hold up the earliest churches as paragons of virtue, and in fact, there have never been any perfect churches. Unfortunately, the most destructive ideas and trends often seem to originate within churches. When the corruption comes from within the church, it amplifies the impact, making the ultimate repercussions widespread and severe...often leading to major schisms. Witness the woke errors (e.g., the promotion of pansexuality, abortion on demand, and antisemitism) which have occurred in the post-modern Episcopal Church, leading to its shrinking in both numbers and influence; and note the birth and growth of the more orthodox Anglican Church in North America, as well as to the development of GAFCON and the Jerusalem Declaration.

The warning words of our Lord in Revelations 2 & 3 are incisive and powerful. It reminds us that just because some new (progressive) idea comes from highly respected ordained leaders or theologians within our churches does not mean it is according to our Lord's inspiration or that it should be accepted. Unless it can be proved by the scriptures themselves to be ordained by God, any such change must be resisted and jettisoned... for the sake of the spiritual health of the Church universal.

References and Resources

Aune, David. "Revelation 1-5, Volume 52a." Word Biblical Commentary. Zondervan, 2014.

Bauckham, Richard. The Climax of Prophecy: Studies on the Book of Revelation. T & T Clark International, 1998.

Hemer, C.J. "Nicolaitan." Article in the New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Volume 2. Pp. 676-678. General Editor, Colin Brown. Zondervan, 1976.

Irenaeus. "Against Heresies, Book I" (26:3). Found (among other places) in Ancient Christian Writers, Edited by Dominic Unger. Paulist Press.

Koester, Craig R. Revelation: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary Yale University Press, 2015.

LaTourette, Kenneth Scott. A History of Christianity, Volume I, Beginnings to 1500 (Revised Edition). Harper & Row, 1953, 1975.

Get a bi-weekly summary of Anglican news from around the world.
comments powered by Disqus
Trinity School for Ministry
Go To Top