In Revelation 2:6 Jesus told the church of Ephesus that one of their admirable characteristics was that they hated the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which Jesus also hated, but who were the Nicolaitans and what sort of works did they do that were so evil?
I believe a key in understanding the term is seen, in that they are not a clearly defined group of people, neither in the New Testament nor in Christian tradition. Some church fathers thought they were followers of Nicholas of Acts 6, but others disagreed. However, they did agree the Nicolaitans were a wicked sect, but, if this were true, why didn’t they separate from the main body of Christians, or why didn’t Paul or the other Apostles demand that they leave the church and refuse to fellowship with them? Some believe they taught antinomianism, shared their wives with one another or practiced polygamy. Still others taught that the Nicolaitans were an early form of the Gnostic sect, which was later called Cerinthianism. This sect denied that God created the world and the “Christ” came upon Jesus at baptism – and the list goes on.
Clearly, the opinions of the early church fathers were just that—guesses that they assumed might have been true. If it sounded good, they taught it, or so it seems. Obviously, therefore, the Nicolaitans couldn’t have been a sect that had a clearly defined set of doctrines that opposed the truth that Paul or the other Apostles taught. Therefore, they never separated from the Body of Christ, nor were they refused fellowship by the church leaders. If this is so, then one must look elsewhere in order to identity the Nicolaitans and understand what was so evil that they did.
The Nicolaitans (G3531) are mentioned only twice in Scripture, once here in Revelation 2:6, in association with the church at Ephesus, and again at Revelation 2:15, as they pertained to the church at Pergamos. The term is taken from two Greek words (Nikos – G3534), meaning victory over or conquerors of, and (laos – G2992), which means the people. In other words, the Nicolaitans were folks who lorded it over God’s heritage, against which Jesus warned his disciples often (Matthew 18:1-6; 20:25-28; 23:1-11; Mark 9:33-37; 10:42-45; Luke 9:46-48; 22:25-27).
Notice that one of the Scriptures above concerns the Jewish leaders, the scribes (or lawyers = rabbis) and the Pharisees (Matthew 23:1-11). Jesus accused them of taking away the key to knowledge (Luke 11:52), because they shut up the Kingdom of God to men. Not only didn’t they enter the Kingdom of God, themselves, but they prevented others from entering (Matthew 23:13). They intimidated and belittled those who recognized Jesus as the Head, because they coveted recognition for themselves as the ‘head’ of the people (John 7:47-52). They also believed the common people were cursed, because they didn’t know the law (Scriptures – cf. John 7:49). Eventually, if they were permitted freedom within the church, they would intimidate the true leaders of the people (John 12:42), and cast out all those who challenge their authority (John 9:24-34).
In his first letter to the regions of Asia (1Peter 1:1), Peter reasoned with the elders of the church, telling them feed the flock of Christ by caring for the church, not because they felt compelled to do so but willingly, and not for dishonest profit but eagerly, and as **lords** over the flock but as servants, being examples for the flock to follow (1Peter 5:1-3).
Finally, John’s third letter mentions an elder by the name of Diotrephes, who loved to be first among the people (3John 1:9). Notice that the Scripture says that he either didn’t acknowledge the true Apostles’ teaching in his own doctrines or he denied the true Gospel in what he taught. Not only so, but he refused to receive true brethren into his fellowship, and cast out those in his fellowship who did receive them (3John 1:10). Thus, we have here in John’s third letter a Nicolaitan who had risen up within his church fellowship to be the chief leader of that community of believers. He compelled the brethren to do as he said, intimidating them and casting them out, if they challenged his authority. Such is what Jesus condemned in the behavior of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 23:13, 15) and taught his disciples to shun in their own behavior (cf. Matthew 10:42-45; Luke 22:24-27).