Who were the Nicolaitanes? (Rev. 2: 6, 15).
In seeking to answer this question, it will be found that the word Nicolaitanes itself is just about the only thing we have to go on. People have tried very hard to show that there was a sect of the Nicolaitanes, but there is absolutely no evidence for this. Nor can we conceive why there should be such emphatic mention of a mere obscure sect, about which people can tell us little or nothing. That this matter was of fundamental importance to the Lord is demonstrated by His denunciation of it: “But this thou hast, that thou hatest the works of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate” (Rev. 2: 6). What needs to be remembered is that God’s Word is its own interpreter, and there is no need to go outside its bounds in order to understand it. Besides, it is common in symbolical passages such as these (see Rev. 1: 1), for the names to be significant.
Nicolaitanes is a Greek word and has two parts. Nikao is a verb and means to conquer or get the upper hand. Laos is a noun and means the people. The Nicolaitanes then, were “conquerors of the people”. Now significantly, from laos we derive the word laity––a word never found in Scripture, but in common use everywhere. Nor is that which is the opposite of laity, namely the clergy, in Scripture either. The clergy (or cleroi) are, according to the meaning of the name, those who, as a class, are especially the Lord’s (or so they regard themselves). They are distinguished by being given up to sacred things, and having a place of privilege in connection with them which the laity have not. Now clearly, in their own eyes, the Nicolaitanes were not laity––they subjected the Lord’s people to themselves as laity. Yet those who are not laity, must naturally be clergy. The Nicolaitanes then, if not laity, are clergy.
Notice the development of Nicolaitanism. Initially it is certain people who have this character, and who take the place as superiors over the people. Their works (Rev. 2: 6) show what they are. There is no doctrine as yet, but the heart that is astray soon formulates a doctrine to justify itself. Thus that which was spoken of as “works” at Ephesus, is in Pergamos crystallised into a doctrine to be accepted and defended (Rev. 2: 15). What did the Lord have to say to Pergamos? “I know where thou dwellest, where the throne of Satan [is] …” (v13). Dwelling “where the throne of Satan is” is to dwell in the world of which he is prince. Instead of being pilgrims, they had settled down in the world and become part of it. Pergamos then, is the worldly church, and the people having become largely secular and unfit for spiritual things, are naturally ripe to be lorded over by those assuming spiritual superiority. Thus while at Ephesus the Nicolaitanes were rejected, in Pergamos they had gained a significant foothold.
If we see Nicolaitanism develop on the pages of Scripture, we may be sure that it has continued to develop ever since. Many blithely assume that it was a problem only in the early Church––but if that were the case why would the Spirit of God see fit to record what would be an irrelevance in our day? Indeed is not Nicolaitanism, in contrast to Scripture, orthodox church doctrine in the present day? People speak of laymen and clergymen––what is this if not to divide God’s people into the secular and the spiritual, and to distinguish between a subject class and a ruling class? If this is denied, why then the clerical title and the clerical dress, if not to distinguish the class set apart for spiritual things from those occupied mostly with the secular? I fully admit that some have disposed of the more obvious symbols of clericalism, but they remain clerics nonetheless. The mass of the people, the laity, are encouraged (thank God) to take a greater part in the service of God and man, but only as subject to the clergy. The strings of rule are not as tight, or as obvious, but they are still there. Of course the godly will submit themselves to true leadership (Heb. 13: 17), but this is the reverse of men submitting persons to their leadership. This the Lord hates (the “works” or principle, not the persons). There is no ruling class in the NT: “But ye, be not ye called Rabbi; for one is your instructor, and all ye are brethren” (Matt. 23: 8).
Nor are those who profess to have rejected clericalism immune from these things. Some saints are fond of speaking of the “ministering brothers”. Ought not all brothers in Christ, indeed all saints, to be occupied in ministering? Such a term, though innocently used, has within it the embryo of clericy. Let us beware of anything that smacks of that which the Lord hates!