When Deeds Become Doctrine - Pete Garcia - http://www.omegaletter.com/articles/articles.asp?ArticleID=8096
In a recent Bible study at church, I was going through the Seven Letters to the Seven Churches, when a fellow participant, challenged my understanding of the term ‘Nicolaitan’. Challenged may be putting it a bit gently. He said that my particular interpretation of it, was “dangerous”.
Knowing this man had Amillennial/Preterist leanings, I asked him, ‘what makes it dangerous?’ When I think dangerous, I think of Jonestown and cyanide laced, purple Kool-Aid. I don’t think my interpretation of the term ‘Nicolaitan’ falls in the realm of dangerous.
But not one to back down from a challenge, or even shrug off the notion that I could be wrong in my understanding, I did what every good Berean does, and researched it. What I found, was not much more than what I already knew. The most popular explanation, was that the Nicolaitan’s were a small heretical sect, who promoted licentious living and sexual immorality. And while I do believe there was in fact, a sect doing just those things at the end of the first century, I don’t believe that is the end of the story.
I explained in that Bible Study, that there was two different views on the meaning and understanding of the word ‘Nicolaitan’. Even using my Scofield Reference Bible, the Nicolaitans were described as being a heretical group who proclaimed to be Christian, yet lived and promoted licentiousness (eating foods sacrificed to idols and sexual immorality).
Then I included my own take on this, by utilizing the Greek compound of the word itself, Nikos-power, and Laos, the people, to conclude that this had to do with the establishment of a clerical class of church leaders, over the laity.
The exchange became slightly heated, but in the end, the point I was trying to make from the very beginning, was that what had been in the letter to the church at Ephesus, the ‘deeds of the Nicolaitans’, had by the letter of the Pergamos church, become the ‘doctrine of the Nicolaitans’.
Now, I don’t discount the more traditional view of the term. Many a good scholar who I deeply respect, hold to that view. In fact, I think there is an excellent read on this at the SpiritandTruth.org website.
But at the end of that article, they do include a short synapsis of the view I also hold too in that, it was the beginning and formation of what we would call a clerical class who over time, began to wield increasing power and control over the laity.
Those who discount the historic witness to an actual sect known as the Nicolaitans12 see the meaning of the name as being a key to understanding their errant teaching. The meaning of the Greek is “rulers of the people.” This meaning may imply that this was an attempt to divide and make an unnatural distinction between the clergy and laity, creating a division in which the clergy exercised rulership over the laity. Certainly, elders have the biblical authority to determine the policy of the local church. But the authority described here probably went much further than the issues in the local church and may have extended to the personal lives of the members.13
If this is the Nicolaitan error, then one only need look at the top-heavy ecclesiastical structures which characterize much of Christendom throughout history to see the sour fruit of such teaching. This is one of many reasons why the doctrine of the priesthood of the believer (2Cor. 3:6; 6:4; 1Pe. 2:5, 9; Rev. 1:6+; 5:10+; 20:6+) is so important for the saints of every age.14
If what I lack in Scripture and even in the mixed testimony of the early church fathers (Irenaeus and Hippolytus said Nicholas was a heretic, Clement of Alexandria and Jerome claimed he was not) I make up for in other ways, namely history. Aside from the precious little that Scripture does make mention of in their deeds,
But this you have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. (Rev. 2:6)
He does again, by making mention a second time by what had now become, doctrine,
But I have a few things against you, because you have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality. 15 Thus you also have those who hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate. (Rev. 2:14-15)
A few things jump out at me here in these two passages. The first, is that even though these churches co-existed at the same time, in one place, there was deeds, and in another, there was doctrine. If Revelation was written in AD65, as many Preterists would have you believe, you’d think that one of the other Apostles would have spoken out against this particular sect, in part, because Jesus hates their deeds so much, that He calls them out by name. If Revelation was written in AD95-96 as I believe it was, then John was still alive and wrote his Gospel account and three Epistles within a few short years of receiving the Revelation (presumably living and familiar with all these churches personally), and would have addressed these in his epistles…yet he doesn’t.
Second, is that in the letter to the church at Pergamos, Christ did not say that the doctrine of the Nicolaitans was the same thing as the doctrine of Balaam, even though they are in close proximity to each other in verse structure. If they were the same thing, why repeat Himself? If they were synonymous, why not just say…the “doctrines of Balaam and the Nicolaitans”? But because He does separate them, I think He is addressing something else that is going on that are different from each other, which even John himself may not have been aware of since his imprisonment and ultimately his abandonment to the isle of Patmos.
One more thought on these two verses and the historical accounts. The strongest arguments for simply writing the Nicolaitans off as some sort of weird, heretical sex cult comes from the Early Church Father testimonies about them. As I mentioned earlier, there was mixed reviews on that as well. The going theory is that, the Nicolaitans were a particular offshoot of one of the seven deacons that were brought into the ministry (Acts 6:5) by the Apostles, by the name of Nicholas.
But what they wrote was not inspired like our Scriptures were inspired, even though many of them were Godly men. At times, even these Godly men disagreed with each other and what we know now, in regards to doctrine. But they are called here as historical witnesses, considering their proximity to the life and times of Jesus’s earthly ministry and the Apostles. The major advantage you and I have over them, is that twenty centuries have since played out.
We’ve seen history unfold and we’ve seen the church change and evolve into what it is today. We saw the rise of Replacement Theology through the first three centuries of the church. We saw the rise and formation of the Roman Catholic Church from the days of Constantine. We saw the Dark Ages when the Holy Roman Empire was established and the power and corruption set in that dominated most of Europe and the Mediterranean. We saw the Protestant Reformation, and the birthing of numerous Protestant Denominations out of it. We saw the great spiritual revivals during the First and Second Great Awakenings. Unfortunately, we’ve also seen the rise of clerical classes who have continually perverted the word of God, and abused their power over the lay-people in each era.
So while I’ll encourage you, the reader, to do your own homework and come to your own conclusions on this topic, I think I’m on safe ground in my understanding. Were the Nicolaitans a sect of people in whom their deeds and doctrines, Christ hated? Clearly yes. Was that the only application we can take from that? I believe, no.
I’m sure there were MANY heretical sects during that same time period, who were busy about either perverting the grace of God, or busy denying the deity of Christ (Gnostics), or busy introducing the Law back into the Church (Judaizers’), to only keep the things Christ hates to a list of one.
Seriously, historical accounts are REPLETE with charges against various groups and persons for introducing heretical and apostate teachings into the body of Christ…so why only single out one sect?
For example, if the Bible were being written today, it would be equivalent to saying that Christ only hated the deeds and doctrines of the Westboro Baptist Church. Yes, they are repulsive, but they are only one, tiny group who influence few. Yet, there are many larger groups leading many more people into an eternal hell through false teachings, such as the Emergent Church movement (blending eastern mysticism into Christianity), Hebrew Roots (mixing the law back into grace), or more traditional cults like Mormonism or Jehovah Witnesses, who’ve led tens of millions blindly into the gates of hell by denying the deity of Christ and salvation by grace through faith.
Who is doing more damage, Westboro Baptist, or these other groups?
Secondarily, groups like the Nicolaitans, were relatively easy to spot, because of the nature of what they taught. If eating things sacrificed to idols and sexual immorality was in fact, their gig, that is harder to hide than say, twisting the truth a little so as to promote a certain belief that runs counter to Scripture. Remember;
''Discernment is not a matter of simply telling the difference between what is right and wrong; rather, it is the difference between right and almost right. And the difference between truth and error is not a chasm, but a razor’s edge.'' (Spurgeon/Murray)
I think the larger ramifications that Christ was addressing here in naming the Nicolaitans, primarily lies in their name, since their deeds and doctrines aren’t clearly identified for us in Scripture. Sexual immorality and eating things offered to idols were already addressed and linked to both Balaam and to Jezebel (Rev. 2:20). Furthermore, what was initially commended by Christ to the church at Ephesus, was that they ‘tested’ those who said they were Apostles, but lied. Even then, men were already pretending to be Apostles so that they could presumably yield some kind of spiritual authority over other believers.
So we are clear on what Scripture actually teaches, as born again believers;
So out of the two interpretations, which is more appropriate for what Christ would address?
One view, which only addresses the deeds and doctrine of one sect, or the latter view, which addresses the potential and eventuality, that power corrupts, and men would come to use this new found faith in order to claim power and authority for themselves over other people. Remember, that the sternest, harshest rebukes by Christ to anyone were reserved to the Pharisees and Sadducees, who pretending to be wise, wielded their spiritual authority over everyone else. (See Matthew 23) Furthermore, of false teachers…
Jesus warned of them. Matt. 24:4-5; Rev. 2:6, 14-15
Paul warned of them. Acts 20:28-31; 2 Tim. 2:15-19; 3:1-8
Peter warned of them. 2 Peter 2
Jude warned of them. Jude 1:1-19
John warned of them. 1 John 1:18-22; 2 John 1:7-11
It seems to be a fairly common theme throughout the Bible in that, false teachers would come in, bringing in seducing doctrines to lure people away from the grace of God. Could they have used sex and licentiousness to lure people away? Sure. But you need only twist the truth a little, to change it entirely.
Which has history seen play out innumerable times? If one were to turn to Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, or other historical documents, you’d see that the Roman Catholic Church alone, killed FAR more Christians than pagan Romans ever did…and they did it through the clerical power structure they created, in order to give themselves authority over the laity, and even kings and kingdoms. Even more relevant to even that is what is tolerated in one generation, becomes the norm in the next. What is deeds in one place and time, becomes the doctrine in the next.
The Roman Papacy didn’t just appear overnight. It took time and it took the incremental introduction of leaven and false teachings to cultivate and shape that power over hundreds of years. This is not simply to pick on the Roman Catholic Church either, because every faith structure (Christian or otherwise), develops their own clerical classes to lead them. Look at Shiite Islam, who has the Ayatollah today or the Buddhists with the Dalai Lama. Wanting power and control is part and parcel with the human condition. In these letters, Christ was warning us of that.
For me, I know those churches not only represented seven real churches there in Asia Minor at the end of the first century, but also spoke to the seven epochs that the churches making up greater Christendom would transition through over two-thousand years. Why is that? Because in each of the letters, Jesus concludes with a challenge meant to have application to everyone …. “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”