THE CATHOLIC KNIGHT: There is a popular teaching in many Evangelical circles that is a regular source of irritation for me, namely because it demonstrates such a poor level of Biblical scholarship that it would almost be humorous were it not so intoxicating to the general Evangelical public. The error has to do with the identity of a group cited in the Book of Revelation as the 'Nicolaitans'...
But you have this in your favour: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. -- Revelation 2:5-7
Likewise, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. -- Revelation 2:14-16These two passages are the full extend to which the Bible mentions the sect of the Nicolaitans. From these two passages, the Scriptures tell us only three things about them. The first is that one of the churches listed in the second chapter had members who embraced their teaching. The second is that one of the other churches hated the teachings of the Nicolaitans. The third is that God hated their teachings too. That's it. That's all we have from Scripture on this sect, nothing more and nothing less, yet from these two passages some modern Evangelicals have constructed a very elaborate explanation.
Essentially, they claim the word 'Nicolaitans' is itself a combination of two words. The first being 'nico' which has its root in the word 'to rule' or 'dominate' and the second is 'lait' from which the word 'laity' can be constructed. Therefore in this Evangelical explanation, the 'Nicolaitans' were those Christians who constructed a separation between the clergy and the laity. (Do you see where this is going?) The Evangelicals then triumphantly claim that God must hate the separation of clergy and laity, thus these passages are used as a vindication of Evangelicalism which has no clear distinction between clergy and laity (even though it really does, just in a more subtle way). By constructing this explanation, it gives Evangelical pastors (a type of subtle clergy by the way) an opportunity to bash Catholicism and traditional Protestantism as well, claiming that God hates the clerical system, thus God prefers Evangelicalism and hates Catholicism (and traditional Protestantism). Evangelicals generally fall for it, because the guy at the front of the chapel preaching it just happens to be wearing a common suit and looks a lot like the guys sitting in the pews next to them. 'Ah ha!' the Evangelical says; 'Here in our Evangelical church we are all equal because we all dress the same and there is no distinction between us.' Never mind the fact that the man preaching at the front of the chapel is functioning in the role of clergy in spite of how he is dressed, and the man who looks the same in the pew would be in for a rude awakening should he ever try to walk up to the front and preach in the pastor's place. Yes, Evangelicals make a very clear distinction between clergy and laity, but they just don't use clothing to define it. Rather the distinction is subtle, but it is there, and it is enforced fully in every way. When I was an Evangelical, I once witnessed an extreme example of this, where a man from the congregation tried to walk up to the front of the chapel and take the pastors place. That man was literally tackled by the ushers and dragged out of the chapel screaming. The poor fellow was probably a deranged lunatic and certainly needed to be stopped. I'm not criticising the ushers here. Their actions were justified. However, the point I'm trying to make is that there is a clear distinction between clergy and laity in Evangelical churches. They don't use clothing to define it, but they do most certainly enforce it. So when an Evangelical pastor uses these above verses to condemn clericalism, he does so hypocritically, because he himself functions as a cleric even though he may not dress as one or call himself one. Anyone who dares to take his place, without going through the proper channels, will be put down rather quickly and in some rare cases -- physically.
The problem here comes with the way Evangelicals often handle the Bible. They are trained by the most strict Protestant discipline to reject all traditional explanations for Scripture as the 'traditions of men' and try to extract from the very words of the Bible their own interpretation of the overall text. This is an admirable trait, up to a point, but the Bible was not written in a vacuum. It was written in an historical and cultural context, therefore, it should not be interpreted in a vacuum either. Rather it should be interpreted in the historical and cultural context in which it was written. Yes, there are many instances when we can extract from the words of Scripture themselves a deeper meaning to the overall text, but sometimes we need to look at the life and times of the people who wrote the text to get a better understanding. This is what is called 'contextual interpretation' of Scripture, and it stands in contrast to the 'literal interpretation' often employed by Evangelicals, or the 'allegorical interpretation' sometimes employed by Modernists. In the case of the Nicolaitans, because Scripture gives us no indication of who they were, it makes sense to look back into the context of history and culture to get some more information. Sadly, a good number of Evangelicals have never done this.
Who were the Nicolaitans? Multiple sources dating back to around the time of the early Church tell us the Nicolaitans were a Gnostic sect, founded by an apostate Church deacon named Nicholas. The name Nicholas itself simply means 'victorious over people,' which helps to explain the Evangelical interpretation error. This is recorded by Hippolytus, Irenaeus, Epiphanius, and Theodoret. (Since the name Nicholas was fairly common, we do not know if there is any relation to the deacon named Nicholas mentioned in Acts 6:5, though Irenaeus records that the Nicolaitans themselves claimed him as their founder.) The early Church historian Eusebius tells us this sect was short-lived. Irenaeus specifically tells us 'they lead lives of unrestrained indulgence.' (Adversus Haereses, i. 26, §3; iii. 11, §1.) The church historian, Venerable St. Bede, stated that Nicolas allowed other men to marry his wife. While Thomas Aquinas stated that Nicholas supported either polygamy or the holding of wives in common (group marriage).
Here the early Church Father Epiphanius, the Bishop of Salamis (a city on the Island of Cyprus) gives us a good deal of information on how the sect of the Nicolaitans was understood in the late 4th century. We can get a lot from this citation. Apparently Nicholas was a deacon (possibly the native from Antioch mentioned in Acts 6:5, who was ordained by the apostles in Jerusalem in 33AD, but we cannot say that with certainty), who admired the discipline of celibacy practised by many clergy within the early Church.[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
Note; here we have yet more evidence of celibacy practised by early Church leadership. St. Paul mentions this many times in Holy Writ. However, Deacon Nicholas was married, as were many deacons and priests (presbyters) as well. The practice of clerical chastity in the early Church is nearly identical to how it is practised today. Whatever you enter the ministry as is what you stay. If you enter the ministry married, you stay married of course, but that's it. You accept the life (and the wife) that God has given you. You are faithful and loyal to her, denying her neither affection nor children. If she should die before you, than that's it, you accept the lot that God has given you and you move on into full celibate service of the Lord. Likewise, should you ender the ministry as an unmarried celibate man, than an unmarried celibate man you shall stay in full service to the Lord. All of this is outlined in St. Paul's writings (1st Corinthians 7). The Biblical teaching was the one kept by the early Church. Remain as you are, married or single, if you can when you enter the ministry, for this is the path the Lord has chosen for you.
However, based on Epiphanius citation of Deacon Nicholas, it would appear that he made a common mistake often duplicated by many lay Catholics today, with the false assumption that celibacy somehow makes one 'more holy.' This is a totally false assumption and flies in the face of official Catholic teaching, but it is a fairly common mistake. The Catholic Church's teachings on marriage are outlined in 1st Corinthians 7, and basically state that marriage is a holy sacrament, equal to holy orders (the ministry), and married men may become ministers (deacons and priests) provided they are married BEFORE they enter the ministry. (The only exception to this is in the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church, one of 23 rites actually, which only admits unmarried men into the priesthood, with only rare exception.) After they enter the ministry they should accept the marital state God has placed them in (wither married or single). Deacon Nicholas apparently committed the error of thinking celibacy made him a better Christian, and in doing so he denied his own needs and the needs of his wife. Other sources tell us he initially gave his wife away in marriage to another man, but then later could not stand to be without her. Thus he rekindled the marriage with her, while she was married to the other man, and in doing so Deacon Nicholas concocted the doctrine of polygamy or polyamory (group marriage) to justify his actions. His followers then did the same with their wives, and before long the whole thing degenerated into multiple-partner group marriages for everyone! Family households became polyamorous as we see demonstrated in this video documenting the modern equivalent....
So there you have it. While it is likely that the Nicolaitans also taught various doctrines of 'secret knowledge' necessary for salvation, as was common among Gnostic sects, it is likely this marital practice that singled them out individually for their namesake.
The Nicolaitans likely justified their behaviour under the grace of God, assuming that because Jesus died for our sins, it's okay to go ahead and sin as you please, so long as it's all done in a spirit of brotherly love. It's sort of like Calvinism (the teaching of 'once saved always saved') abused and run amok, but in a way that neither John Calvin nor his followers would ever condone. Based on Church history, and the writings of the people who lived closest to the time, this is the most accurate understanding of the teaching and deeds of the Nicolaitans. Outside of this historical understanding we should not tread, for to do so is to risk twisting the Scriptures into something they were never intended to say.
Switching gears for a moment, let's go back to the popular Evangelical interpretation of this passage, which is a vain attempt at condemning clericalism. As I pointed out above, when Evangelical pastors do this, they do so hypocritically, because they themselves function as clergy even though they refuse to dress or identify as such. This notion that there is no hierarchy within the Church is not Christian in origin. For from the very beginning, we see that Jesus himself set up a hierarchy structure even among his apostles. This translated into the clergy in the Book of Acts, as the apostles separately ordained bishops and deacons, the deacons holding a lesser ministerial role than the bishops. Gradually, over the first twenty years or so, the early Church separated the office of bishop into two clerical positions, one lesser than the other, the bishop and the priest. This is alluded in the Scriptures as the term 'presbyter' appears in the New Testament to describe bishop-like clergy who are not fully bishops.
All of this comes from the Biblical concept of ordination, of which the Greek words cheirotonia and cheirothesia are used, meaning 'the laying on of hands.' This comes to the Church through the Jewish custom by the Hebrew word semichut. The scriptural concept of ordination is a transferring of the character of one's office. Case in point; when a Jewish priest ordained a man to the priesthood, that man took on the full authority and religious character of the one who ordained him. The ordination was full and complete. The ordained possessed all the powers of the ordainer -- unless the ordainer intentionally specified to only share some of his ministerial powers. In this latter case, the ordained could receive only part of the powers given by the ordainer.
Now as this practice translated to the early Church, we have Jesus Christ himself, who is both God and the promised Messiah. He is both the ultimate High Priest, and the King of kings. Jesus ordained his apostles, and in doing so he shared many (but not all) of his ministerial powers with them. Then he instructed them to go out and make disciples of the whole world. To do this, these apostles ordained other men as bishops (meaning 'elder' or 'overseer'), and gave them their full apostolic authority. As these men ministered in the areas the apostles left behind, they shared part of their ministerial powers with other men who would help them administer the Church in that area. Those ordained as presbyters were given all the powers of the bishop, minus the ability to ordain others, and minus authority over other ordained persons. Those ordained as deacons were given many of the authorities needed to help the presbyters, but not the full ministerial authority of a presbyter. This was the primitive hierarchy of the early Church, and this hierarchy continued to develop over the centuries. There is nothing wrong with this, and in fact, it was a pattern modelled by Jesus and the apostles themselves. In all human endeavours, some kind of authority structure is needed, and God understands this. He understood it in the Old Testament, and he understood it in the New Testament. The Church's hierarchy structures we see today are the natural progression of this.
So where does the occasional Evangelical pastor get off by teaching that God hates the clerical structure (even though he himself is technically part of it). The notion comes not from Christianity but from Freemasonry (the Masonic Lodge), where men are taught that they are all equals and not one of them has authority over the other. Their leadership rotates based on elections, and any man is eligible to become the 'Worshipful Master' in time as the elected rotation progresses. Thus there is no clerical separation in the Lodge. Religious rituals (and yes they are 'religious' in nature) are carried out in the lodge by those in elected authority, and those people rotate every so many years, so no one man holds the same office for very long. Thus all are 'equal' and there is no 'separation' between members. This is where the warped interpretation of Nicolaitans likely comes from, and in some Protestant sects (especially during the 18th and 19th centuries) the notion of elected clergy became in vogue. Some modern Evangelical and Pentecostal sects continue with a slightly reduced version of this today, wherein a 'board of elders' is elected and rotates every so many years, while the pastor is often interviewed and hired by this board. All of this comes from Freemasonry's influence on Protestantism over the last few-hundred years. That's not to say that every Evangelical who preaches the anti-clerical version of the Nicholaitans is a Freemason or has some connection to the Lodge. Far from it! I've personally heard some Evangelical preachers condemn clericalism and Freemasonry in almost the same breath! These pastors may be anti-Mason in their beliefs, but they promote Masonic teaching unwittingly in their actions; by preaching a Masonic interpretation of the Nicolaitans and practising the Masonic tradition of electing elders and hiring pastors.
Remember that next time some Evangelical tells you that God hates clericalism and that it's in the Book of Revelation. The only thing God hates is wife-swapping (Nicolaitanism), and those who say God hates clericalism are actually promoting a Masonic concept which in itself is something else God hates.