Who were Nicolaitans?
Paul Lansley investigates the New Testament antecedents of the liberal establishment
Revelation 2.12 &15: ‘And to the Angel of the Church in Pergamon write, These things says He Who has the sharp two-edged sword: … You also have those who hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate.’
We may wonder who were these ‘Nicolaitans’, and what was their doctrine which was so hateful? They sound like something that might be yodelled in the Swiss Alps. St John compares their teaching to that of Balaam (Numbers 22–24), who in Numbers 31.16 is said to have counselled Israelites to ‘bow down to Baal-Peor’, and presumably not to have discouraged them from committing ‘whoredom with the daughters of Moab’ (Numbers 25.1–3). So the offence of the Nicolaitans, which the Church of Ephesus is congratulated for hating (Revelation 2.6), is ‘to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication’ (Revelation 2.14).
Putting it into the context of the Graeco-Roman world of the first century AD, we can see fairly easily what was happening. Some of the early Christians, from Gentile backgrounds or from Jewish families assimilating into such a background, thought that it would help to spread the Gospel if they took an ‘ecumenical’ attitude towards pagan religious observance and were easy-going in matters of sexual morality. After all, ‘in this day and age’ everybody does it…
If the New Testament tells us no more about the Nicolaitans, some of the early Christian writers mention them: Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian and St Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons (martyred c202). It is St Irenaeus who links them to a figure known to us in the Acts of the Apostles.
What became of the seven deacons?
We read in Acts of the Apostles that when the Twelve found themselves burdened by administrative problems among the Christian community in Jerusalem, they appointed seven helpers. These men all had Greek names, and are reckoned as the first members of the Order of Deacons in the Church of God.
All but one of the Seven Deacons are counted among the Saints. It seems that, as with the original Twelve Apostles, one betrayed his trust. Their names are listed in Acts 6.5. What is known or told about them afterwards is as follows.
St Stephen is the first-named, and of course incomparably the most famous. The story of his martyrdom is told at length in Acts: his effective ministry, his arrest and trial, with his speech before the Sanhedrin, and his death by stoning, witnessed and approved by Saul of Tarsus. As Protomartyr of the Church, he is commemorated on the day ‘good King Wenceslas looked out’, the Feast of Stephen, 26 December – but the Eastern Church has shifted him to 27 December.
St Philip also appears prominently in Acts. He is called also Philip the Evangelist, and spread the Gospel in Samaria (Acts 8.5–13), baptized the Ethiopian Eunuch, then after a further missionary tour settled at Caesarea (8.26–40). Later, St Paul was his guest, and Philip’s four daughters who prophesied are mentioned (21.8–9). One of them, St Hermione, is honoured as a martyr (on 4 September). Philip is said to have become Bishop of Tralles in Lydia. He is commemorated in the western Church on 6 June, and in the eastern on 11 October.
St Prochorus is not mentioned further in the New Testament. He is said to have become Bishop of Nicomedia, and to have died a martyr at Antioch. The west commemorates him on 9 April, the east on 28 July.
St Nicanor was from Cyprus. He returned there to preach the Gospel, and was tortured and executed in the reign of Vespasian. Commemorated in the west on 10 January; in the east on 28 July (with the other three) and on 28 December.
St Timon was martyred at Corinth. He is in the western calendar on 19 April, and in the eastern on 28 July.
St Parmenas was martyred at Philippi. The west commemorates him on 23 January, the east on 28 July.
Credible to the modern world
Nicholas of Antioch, like Judas Iscariot, is named last on the list. This seems to lend credibility to St Irenaeus’ assertion that he was the originator of the Nicolaitan heresy. Acts tells us that he was a proselyte; that is, a convert to Judaism, not a born Israelite. So his Gentile background may have predisposed him to try and bridge the gap between the Hebrew and Hellenistic cultures. Indeed, Christianity itself was doing that, having dispensed with the requirement that all male converts should be circumcised (Acts 15). But this set up a tension which persisted through the first five centuries of the Church. How far should the Christian Faith be adapted to the ways of contemporary thought? At the beginning of the fourth century Arius assimilated the ‘Logos’ of St John’s Gospel with the ‘Demiurge’ of the Neoplatonists. The great champions of orthodoxy had to fight to uphold biblical revelation as against contemporary ideas, but nevertheless to express it in contemporary terms. This was the achievement of the Ecumenical Councils.
But the same tension plagues the Church today, especially in the west. We may remember a certain very high office-holder in the Church of England arguing in Synod for a total innovation in Church Order on the grounds that we must do this ‘if we are to be credible to the modern world’. Nicholas of Antioch could not have put it better! Alas, in 1992 his view prevailed.
‘Remember therefore from whence you are fallen; and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come to you quickly, and will remove your candlestick out of its place, unless you repent.’ Revelation 2.5.
Paul Lansley is a retired priest in the Diocese of Chelmsford.
Note: Eusebius gives a different, and opposite account of the Nicolaitans, alleging them to be puritanical, treating ‘all physical desire with contempt’. But Irenaeus’ version is to be preferred, (a) because it squares with St John’s reference to Balaam and to ‘fornication’, and (b) because lrenaeus lived more than a century earlier than Eusebius, and was closer to the sources – through St Polycarp to St John himself.
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