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Nicolaism (also Nicholaism, Nicolationism, or Nicolaitanism) is a Christian heresy, first mentioned (twice) in the Book of Revelation of the New Testament, whose adherents were called Nicolaitans, Nicolaitanes, or Nicolaites. According to Revelation 2, vv. 6 and 15, they were known in the cities of Ephesus and Pergamon. In this chapter, the church at Ephesus is commended for "hating the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate" and the church in Pergamon is blamed for "having them who hold their [the Nicolaitans'] doctrines". There is no other first-hand evidence to give us certainty about the nature of this sect.
Hippolytus of Rome states that the deacon Nicolas was the author of the heresy and the sect. Several of the early church fathers, including Irenaeus, Epiphanius, and Theodoret mentioned this group. Irenaeus discusses them but adds nothing to the Apocalypse except that "they lead lives of unrestrained indulgence." Victorinus of Pettau states that they ate things offered to idols. Bede states that Nicolas allowed other men to marry his wife and Thomas Aquinas believed that Nicholas supported either polygamy or the holding of wives in common. Eusebius said that the sect was short-lived.
The common statement, that the Nicolaitans held the antinomian heresy of Corinth, has not been proved. Another opinion, favoured by a number of authors, is that, because of the allegorical character of the Apocalypse, the reference to the Nicolaitans is merely a symbolic manner of reference. As a symbolic reference, the "teaching of the Nicolaitans" refers to dominating the people, compared to the "teaching of Balaam" which refers to seducing the people. John, the author of Revelation, discusses domination within the church in 3 John 9-11.
Nico means "conquer" in Greek, and laitan refers to lay people, or laity; hence, the word may be taken to mean "lay conquerors" or "conquerors of the lay people". However, "Nicolaitan" (Greek: Νικολαϊτῶν; Νικολαΐτης) is the name ostensibly given to followers of the heretic Nicolas (Greek: Νικόλαος)—the name itself meaning "victorious over people," or "victory of the people," which he would have been given at birth.
The name Balaam is perhaps capable of being interpreted as a Hebrew equivalent of the Greek Nicolas. Some commentators think that this is alluded to by St. John in Revelation 2:14; and C. Vitringa argues forcibly in support of this opinion. However, Albert Barnes notes:
Vitringa supposes that the word is derived from νικος, victory, and λαος, people, and that thus it corresponds with the name Balaam, as meaning either lord of the people, or he destroyed the people; and that, as the same effect was produced by their doctrines as by those of Balaam, that the people were led to commit fornication and to join in idolatrous worship, they might be called Balaamites or Nicolaitanes--that is, corrupters of the people. But to this it may be replied,
(a) that it is far-fetched, and is adopted only to remove a difficulty;
(b) that there is every reason to suppose that the word here used refers to a class of people who bore that name, and who were well known in the two churches specified;(c) that, in Rev 2:15 , they are expressly distinguished from those who held the doctrine of Balaam, Rev 2:14 --"So hast thou also (και) those that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes."—Albert Barnes, New Testament Notes
Cyrus Scofield, in his Notes on the Bible, following dispensationalist thought, suggests that the Seven Letters in Revelation foretell the various eras of Christian history, and that "Nicolaitans" "refers to the earliest form of the notion of a priestly order, or 'clergy,' which later divided an equal brotherhood into 'priests' and 'laity.'"
The Nicolas of Acts 6:5 was a native of Antioch and a proselyte (convert to Judaism) and then a follower of the way of Christ. When the Church was still confined to Jerusalem, he was chosen by the whole multitude of the disciples to be one of the first seven deacons, and he was ordained by the apostles, c. AD 33. It has been questioned whether this Nicolas was connected with the Nicolaitans mentioned in Revelation, and if so, how closely. The Nicolaitans themselves, at least as early as the time of Irenaeus, claimed him as their founder. It is noticeable (though the documents themselves sit not of much weight as evidence) that in two instances the Nicolaitans are said to be "falsely so called" (ψευδώνυμοι).
Epiphanius relates some details of the life of Nicolas the deacon, and describes him as gradually sinking into the grossest impurity, and becoming the originator of the Nicolaitans and other libertine Gnostic sects:
[Nicolas] had an attractive wife, and had refrained from intercourse as though in imitation of those whom he saw to be devoted to God. He endured this for a while but in the end could not bear to control his incontinence.... But because he was ashamed of his defeat and suspected that he had been found out, he ventured to say, "Unless one copulates every day, he cannot have eternal life."—Epiphanius, Panarion, 25, 1
Hippolytus agreed with Epiphanius in his unfavourable view of Nicolas.
The same account is believed, at least to some extent, by Jerome and other writers in the 4th century; but it is irreconcilable with the traditional account of the character of Nicolas given by Clement of Alexandria, an earlier writer than Epiphanius. He states that Nicolas led a chaste life, and brought up his children in purity; that on a certain occasion, having been sharply reproved by the apostles as a jealous husband, he repelled the charge by offering to allow his wife to become the wife of any other person; and that he was in the habit of repeating a saying which is ascribed to the apostle Matthias also,—that it is our duty to fight against the flesh and to abuse (παραχρῆσθαι) it. His words were perversely interpreted by the Nicolaitans as authority for their immoral practices. Theodoret, in his account of the sect, repeats the foregoing statement of Clement, and charges the Nicolaitans with false dealing in borrowing the name of the deacon.
Among later critics, Cotelerius in a note on Constit. Apost. vi. 8, after reciting the various authorities, seems to lean towards the favourable view of the character of Nicolas. Professor Burton is of opinion that the origin of the term Nicolaitans is uncertain; and that, "though Nicolas the deacon has been mentioned as their founder, the evidence is extremely slight which would convict that person himself of any immoralities." Tillemont, possibly influenced by the fact that no honour is paid to the memory of Nicolas by any branch of the Church, allows more weight to the testimony against him; rejects peremptorily Cassian's statement—to which Neander gives his adhesion—that some other Nicolas was the founder of the sect; and concludes that if not the actual founder, he was so unfortunate as to give occasion to the formation of the sect, by his indiscreet speaking. Grotius' view as given in a note on Revelation 2:6, is substantially the same as that of Tillemont.