Servants' News

February 1996

Good Questions on Nicolaitanism

We received a few good questions about our articles on church government [several issues] and on Nicolaitanism [November 1995]. The letter below included many of the questions, so we have reprinted the entire letter and response.


Thank you for your letter of December 12, 1995. You asked many good questions. I feel I can answer most of them. I value your letter as it is one of the few constructive criticisms that we have received. I will repeat your letter and respond to it:

I recently wrote to you asking you to remove my name from your mailing list because I simply could not agree with either your ideas or your attitude.

You have a friend who insists that you are a reasonable man and that it is unfair for me to disagree with you without being specific about the disagreement. He is right about the last part; I hope he is right about the first part as well. In any case, here is where I disagree with you.

In the Servants' News, Sept-Oct, 1995, page 3, there is an article which advocates that we each start our own church. I suppose that then each of the people who attend with us would eventually go off and start their own church, and so on. This is anarchy and confusion. God is not the author of confusions (1 Cor 14:33).

The article did not suggest that everyone "start their own church" but that people who are spiritually ready make themselves available to teach those that will listen. The article quotes Acts 8:1,4 which shows that nearly all the Jerusalem brethren were scattered and went everywhere preaching the Gospel. We find it interesting that you quote 1 Corinthians 14:33, a passage about conducting worship services. Please read verse 26 and see that each of the brethren had a part in the services—was that confusion? See verse 29 where it says that two or three prophets were to speak, and the others were to judge. This is an obvious reference to scriptures like Deuteronomy 13 and Isaiah 8:20 where we are told to judge whether prophets are true or false. People need to be able to hear speakers and judge from the scriptures whether their message is true or not.

The "confusion" that Paul says to avoid is not preventing a diversity of opinions to be spoken, but in requiring that the prophets speak one at a time (verses 30-32). While we should not try to cause division, a certain amount of division is allowed among the body so our father may know who is seeking him (1 Cor 11:17-19, Deut 13:3). If we look at the history of Sabbath-keepers, we find a diversity of governments and doctrines. Look at Revelation 2 and 3. There are seven congregations all with different problems and doctrines. We can label all of that "confusion" or we can accept our Savior's leadership over His Body. (We should not be too shocked—He also allows us to grow up in a world that is about as confused as one could imagine.)

Under this system how would we obey (or are you afraid of the word "obey?") the instruction in 1 Cor. 1:10 that we "all speak the same thing?" Where would be the central clearing house for our ideas? Who would tell us when we were wrong? Who would give them the authority to do so? How would we know that their idea was any better than our own? If we continued to disagree with them then we would not be speaking the same thing. If we yielded to their ideas, would that not give them rulership over us?

I certainly believe in obeying our Father in heaven. There are primarily two words translated "obey" in the New Testament. The one that means "obey an authoritative command" is hupakouo, and is used in the sense of obeying the Eternal or obeying scripture. There is no command to give such allegiance to men. The other word, peitho, has a meaning of "being persuaded" or "cooperating with." This is the word used in Hebrews 13:17. However, there are plenty of Sabbath-keeping organizations that I could join and each of their leaders would command me to obey them. Is only one of these organizations right and are all the others sinners? Do we have a choice about which one we will attend? Do we have to choose a man to "be under" or can we submit directly to the authority of our Savior?

Please read all of 1 Corinthians 1:10-17. Paul is not talking about division caused by individual teachers expounding the scriptures differently, but is talking about the very situation we described above. People were saying "I am of Paul," or "I am of Apollos." They were setting themselves up as followers of men rather than submitting directly to the guidance of the holy spirit which is what brings us into all truth (John 16:13). Romans 14 shows that there may be people with wrong doctrines but we can still fellowship with them and we should try not to offend them.

There is no doubt that a human organization can enforce "unity" by telling its ministers and members to either speak the headquarters point of view or get out. Ephesians 4:3-6 shows that our unity is through the holy spirit and mentions, one body, one baptism, one Father, one hope and one faith—but it does not mention one human leader. Later in verse 15 and in chapter 5:23 we see that "Christ is the head of the church." How many people can our Messiah manage? Just one human leader? Or just the heads of a few big organizations? We think he can manage thousands or millions of scattered congregations much better than any human organization could ever do it.

Who will tell us when we are wrong? "...For He Himself has said, 'I will never leave you nor forsake you.' So we may boldly say: 'The Lord is my helper; I will not fear. What can man do to me?'" (Heb 13:5-6). Herbert Armstrong taught Pentecost as being Sivan 6 in his early years, always Monday beginning in the 40's, and always Sunday beginning in the 70's. He must have been wrong at least two of the times. Does following a man always tell us when we are wrong? Or is it just more comfortable to be wrong with a big group of people? If a person studies the scripture and cannot agree with the leader of his congregation, he should not cause those that are weak in the faith to stumble, but he should have his faith to himself and act according to his convictions (Rom 14:22-23).

How do we know when to stay with a specific congregation and when to leave? The problem is most often taken care of for you. If you sincerely live your convictions and talk about them when asked (not pushing them on others), people less interested in seeking the truth will usually want to put you out of their assembly (John 9:22, 16:2, 3Jn 9-10). It is interesting that we find no instruction at all in the New Testament for the true believers to depart from the synagogues—they were put out. In some cases, we find reasons why we should leave (2Ths 3:6, 1Tim 6:5, Rev 2:2).

Rulership over you is what you seem to be trying to avoid at all cost. You appear to want everybody to be a chief, with nobody to be indians.

To the contrary, there is One Chief, and all the rest are "indians."

At this point I must address the rhetoric that has proliferated about the Nicolaitans and the misconceptions about who they were and what they did that Jesus hated. C. J. Milosh, in his article on Nicolaitanism, says, "Two Greek root words are brought together to form 'Nicolaitan': NICO and LAOS. 'Nico' means to conquer or bind. 'Laos' means the "the common people.' 'Lait' (as in the central section of NICO - 'LAIT' - AN) is a form of 'laos.' The modern term, 'laity,' was formed by simply adding a 'y.'" (emphasis his.)

Up to this point, all the sources I checked agreed. However, then C. J. Milosh takes a quantum leap into his own agenda, as do J. H. Allen and all the others who obviously have a problem with authority figures.

To continue quoting Mr. Milosh: "Now, for there to be a LAITY there must be a CLERGY. The 'Clergy' is the elite ruling class, as contrasted with the 'laity' which is the common class. Hence, we now understand that the thing Jesus Christ hates and detests is the spirit of clergy/laity (i.e., class society with one ruling over another)." (Again, emphasis his.)

I have a question: Where is the word "clergy" in the word "Nicolaitan?" The "conquering" I can see; the "people" I can see. But I don't see anything in the word "Nicolaitan" that has anything to do with "clergy" or that the "clergy" are the ones doing the conquering.

We looked at some of the source material that C. J. Milosh cites and we are ordering some more of it. We would like to publish another article on the subject. C. J. Milosh applied the definition of "conquering the people" to what has happened throughout much of church history—a small group of "clergy" has ruled over the "laity," often for their own benefit. Most "Church of God" groups have inherited the concept of an "ordained ministry" from the Catholic and Protestant churches, not from the Bible. Please read our articles How Does The Eternal Govern Through Humans? and Assembling on the Sabbath for a detailed explanation.

Another question: How can we "now understand that the thing Jesus Christ hates and detests is the spirit of clergy/laity (i.e., class society with one ruling over another)?" Did Jesus Christ hate Himself? (Rev 12:5; 19:15).

Did Jesus Christ hate the Thyatirans? Revelation 2:26-27 says that if the Thyatirans overcome He will give them power over the nations and that they will rule with a rod of iron. Overcoming doesn't sound like a viable goal if the reward for doing it is something Jesus hates. But then, since Jesus is the one giving the reward and the reward is something He hates, then He is the one that is confused. And I don't believe that for a minute!

The Scriptures you cite refer to perfect spirit beings ruling over men, not fallible human beings. There is a big difference! We are not in the Millennium! Our father does not guarantee that "Church leaders" will be infallible (though some have claimed that). Herbert Armstrong diligently taught much truth for over 50 years, but his last letter appointed a man that oversaw the reversal of most of that teaching. Did the members have the authority to leave teaching they recognized from the Bible to be false? Did a "minister" have to tell them it was all right to leave? How many "ministers" preached (and are still preaching) that members must stay in their organization "no matter what"? Please read Ezekiel 34 to see how our Father is against the shepherds that feed themselves and not their flocks.

The truth of the matter is that Jesus does not hate strong rulership. What Jesus hates is rebellious attitudes and those who refuse to be ruled. Heb 13:7 says, "Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you..." This means that those who speak the word of God to us also have rule over us. They have the authority to tell us when we are not conducting our lives according to that word of God and to teach us how to obey.

If two ministers, one from the GCG and one from the UCG each came to your house, spoke "the word of God to you," and then told you to tithe to their headquarters, which one would you obey? The doctrines or the organizations have only minor differences. Neither claims to be the "one and only True Church." If you chose one organization based on its doctrinal teaching, what would you do if the other organization told you that you, as a "lay member" are not qualified to make such a fine doctrinal distinction? Is it not your own decision whom you will obey?

The Greek word used for "rule" in Hebrews 13:7 is hegemoai and is more often translated "count" or "think" and here means "leaders" or "those that must give account." The sense of obeying "day-to-day commands" does not exist in the Greek text. Consider Moffatt's translation of the same verse: "Remember your leaders, the men who spoke the word of God to you; look back upon the close of their career, and copy their faith."

1 Pet 2:18 says: "Servants, be submissive to your masters with all fear, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the harsh." Of course it's easier to submit to the good and gentle master and most of us want life to be as easy as possible. But God says that if the master is harsh, submit to him anyway.

This command is for men who were physical servants to submit to their physical masters. This system was supported by the Old Testament (Ex 21:2, Ex 22:3), though it was misused. This verse has nothing to do with spiritual leaders that were completely forbidden to "lord it over" their brethren (Luke 22:25-26).

Heb 13:17 carries instructions of great significance to all of us. I will break it down into three sections:

A. "Obey those who rule over you and be submissive..." We are to obey and be submissive. To obey is an action. To be submissive is an attitude of mind. Both our actions and our attitudes must be in tune with God's will.

The Greek peitho ("obey") is usually translated "persuade" or "trust"—it contains the idea of becoming friends, cooperating. The Greek pietharcheo, used for obeying the Eternal or kings (Acts 5:29, Tit 3:1) was not used here. The Greek hegemoai ("rule") is more often translated "count" or "think" as we stated above." The Greek hupotasso, ("submit") is the same word used for "people submitting to civil authority" and members "submitting to each other" (Rom 13:1-5, 1Cor 16:16, Eph 5:21, 1Pet 5:5). If hupotasso meant "under absolute authority," how could the believers be "under absolute authority" to each other? Rotherham translates this section "Be yielding unto them who are guiding you and submit yourselves..." 1 Corinthians 11:3 unmistakably tells us "... the head of every Man is Christ...."

B. "...for they watch out for your souls as those who must give account..." Those who have rule over us are responsible for what they say and do to us. And if they deliberately mistreat us, then Hebrews 10:31 takes effect.

You are certainly right about leaders being judged for mistreating the brethren (Jms 3:1). But why did you leave the WCG? Because we are told to determine when a teacher is teaching falsely and to leave (2Ths 3:6, 1Tim 6:5). If a teacher misleads us, is all the responsibility upon him, or do we bear some also? Seven times, the letters to the churches tell us that "him who overcomes" will be rewarded. 1 Corinthians 3:12-17 shows that "each ones' work" will be tested. Numerous parables of our Savior show the importance of individual actions and deeds. When the kings of Israel disobeyed the Scriptures and encouraged the people to follow them, who went into captivity? Just the king or the entire nation? If a "minister" tells a person that he can (or should) divorce his or her spouse, does that eliminate the scriptural obligations to one's family? (I am not saying every divorce is wrong, but I have seen some very creative reasoning by ministers eager to please a well-liked member.)

C. "...Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you." (emphasis mine.) Who will it be unprofitable for? Not the ones who have rule over us, they have to account to God. To refuse to obey and be submissive would be unprofitable for us. Period. Paragraph.

We should cooperate as much as possible with our leadership and it is a blessing to us. Our Savior certainly has established many different spiritual gifts in his assembly (Rom 12:6-8, 1Cor 12:7-11, 28-31, Eph 4:11-15). We can work with brethren even if they do not understand every doctrine as we do. I have personally attended with a variety of Sabbath-keeping groups and have encouraged others to do the same. If we cannot cooperate with our fellow-laborers, it is not likely we will bear much fruit. I have certainly met people that tend to offend every leader and group that they meet with—that attitude is certainly unprofitable for them.

Problems also arise when men set themselves up as being spiritually "over" other men and then command obedience to themselves. The article to which you objected, Preach the Gospel in Your City for Only $400 Per Year, was an effort to encourage teaching of the truth regardless of organizational lines. If we had more of that approach and less fighting over who was going to be "in authority over the members," members would be much more effective.

Incidentally, Hebrews 13:24 says, "Greet all those who rule over you, and all the saints." So much for not having a difference between "those who rule over you" and "the saints," in other words, "the people."

The Greek for "rule" is again hegemoai. Moffatt translates this verse "Salute all your leaders and all the saints." Paul mentions the leaders separately here because he was just talking about them. If you look at the end of all of Paul's epistles, you see he greets (or "salutes"—same Greek word aspazomai) a great variety of named individuals, congregations, and "the saints" or "the brethren." Sometimes his list is long (Rom 16), Sometimes it is very short (Gal 6:18). We cannot conclude that his purpose in these diverse endings was to establish some individuals or groups as "over" others in authority. This Scripture in Hebrews is the only place where he specifically, separately mentions "leaders" and "the saints." This simple greeting cannot be used to establish the Catholic and Protestant doctrine of "clergy" placed over the "laity" through "ordination."

While the "laying on of hands" is taught in the Bible, the doctrine of ordination does not exist there. Hands were laid on people to accomplish specific tasks, not to make them a "deacon" or "minister" for life (Acts 6:5-6, 13:2-3). Hands were laid on Stephen so he could serve widows, but in the very next verses he is performing great miracles and powerfully preaching to the heads of the civil government (Acts 6:5-7:60). If you look up the word "ordain" in Young's Analytical Concordance, you will find 13 different Greek words translated to this single English word—and all of those Greek words have another meaning and are usually not translated "ordain." To a Greek reader, there is no word for "ordain" in the Bible. Please read our free article, How Does the Eternal Govern Through Humans?, for a full explanation.

Now for what it was about the Nicolaitans that Jesus hated. The Nicolaitans did indeed try to conquer God's people, but not by harsh rule. They tried to destroy God's people by getting them to turn the grace of God into lasciviousness. The Amplified Bible calls them "those corrupters of the people" (Rev 2:15).

The NRSV Harper Study Bible, note on Rev 2:6: "The Nicolaitans were a heretical group tolerated by the church of Pergamum (v.15), but rejected by the church at Ephesus. They stressed Christian liberty to such an extent that they allowed for gross immorality and idolatry." This doesn't sound like harsh rule to me.

The NIV Study Bible, Note on Rev 2:6: "Nicolaitans. A heretical sect within the church that had worked out a compromise with the pagan society. They apparently taught that spiritual liberty gave them sufficient leeway to practice idolatry and immorality. Tradition identifies them with Nicholas, the proselyte of Antioch who was one of the first seven deacons in the Jerusalem church (Acts 6:5), though the evidence is merely circumstantial. A similar group at Pergamum held the teaching of Balaam (vv. 14-15), and some at Thyatira were followers of the woman Jezebel (V.20). From their heretical tendencies it would appear that all three groups were Nicolaitans."

The Living Bible, footnote on Rev 2:6: "Nicolaitans, when translated from Greek to Hebrew, becomes Balaamites; followers of the man who induced the Israelites to fall by lust. (See Revelation 2:14 and Numbers 31:15, 16)"

The New Bible Dictionary, published by Erdmans, reprinted 1979, page 886: "NICHOLAS, NICOLAITANS. Nicholas of Antioch (Acts 6:5) is supposed to have given his name to a group in the early Church who sought to work out a compromise with paganism, to enable Christians to take part without embarrassment in some of the social and religious activities of the close-knit society in which they found themselves. It is possible that the term Nicolaitan is a Graecized form of Heb. Balaam, and therefore allegorical, the policy of the sect being likened to that of the Old Testament corrupter of Israel (Nu. xxii). In that case the Nicolaitans are to be identified with the groups attacked by Peter (2Pet 2:15), Jude (verse 11), and John (Rev 2:14 and possibly 2:20-23), for their advocacy within the Church of pagan sexual laxity. References in Irenaeus, Clement, and Tertulian suggest that the group hardened into a Gnostic sect traceable as far as AD 200."

The Bible Almanac, Edited by Packer, Tenney & White, Copyright 1980 by Thomas Nelson Publishers, Page 537: "Nicolaitans. John focused on a more extreme form of Gnosticism rampant throughout the first-century church (1 and 2 John; Rev. 2:6, 14, 15). These were Nicolaitans. Supporters of this deadly doctrine claimed that, since their bodies were physical (and therefore evil), only what their spirits did was important. So they felt free to indulge in indiscriminate sexual relationships, to eat food which had been offered to idols, and to do anything they pleased with their bodies.

"...Irenaeus, Tertullian, and other church fathers denounced the Nicolaitans along with the Gnostics. Irenaeus reported that the sect was named for Nicolaos, a deacon of the first Nicolaitan community, who indulged in adultery."

Now this sounds much more like what Jesus would hate. There were similar articles in The Jamieson, Fausset, Brown 1 Volume Commentary on the Whole Bible; the Smith Bible Dictionary and other sources. This is what I believe and why I cannot agree with you Mr. Edwards.

We realize that most Bible helps probably give an explanation similar to the above. They essentially say that the doctrine of the Nicolaitans is the same as the doctrine of Balaam. We have trouble with this for three reasons:

  1. Balaam means "not of the people"—not the same as "conqueror of the people."
  2. If there were no significant difference between the Nicolaitan and Balaam doctrines, why would John have been inspired to use separate words? These are very specific messages about problems within the congregations. People cannot repent of an error unless they know what it is. Balaam's error is well documented in scripture (Num 31:16, 2Pet 2:15, Jude 11, Rev 2:14), and everyone agrees that Balaam deceived people to sin and depart from the truth. There is no explanation of the Nicolaitan doctrine in the Bible. One of the above reference works admits that the connection to Nicholas in Acts is circumstantial. It appears that the nature of the Nicolaitan doctrine has been preserved in the meaning of the word.
  3. Most "Bible scholars"—including Bible translators—support the traditional church government even though it is not in the Bible. Your last reference above mentions "Nicolaos, a deacon." The author probably knows better, but feels safe "keeping with tradition." What is the Greek word for "deacon"? Diakonos. What is the Greek word for "minister"? Diakonos. How do nearly all church congregations establish separate positions of "minister" and "deacon" when there is only one Greek word? These "offices" existed in the Church of England when the KJV Bible was translated. The translators were subject to King James who wanted to maintain traditional ecclesiastical control of the church. They arbitrarily wrote "deacon" some places and "minister" in other places and nearly every Bible translator has followed that lead. But if you ask a person that speaks Greek, he will tell you that there is no difference in the original text. The Greek diakonos is also translated "servant" a number of times—that is its real meaning. Where would traditional "church government" be with neither "ministers" nor "deacons" in the Bible?

Similarly, it is not surprising that we see Bible commentaries and helps ignoring the meaning of "Nicolaitan." Which church congregation would recommend a book that condemns their church government?

Having gone through some really bad marriages, I understand the pain of having to submit to a harsh ruler. If I had been willing to leave the Church over government or because of harsh, unfair or even abusive treatment by ministers and brethren, I would have left the Worldwide Church of God twenty years ago. Or eighteen years ago. Or fifteen years ago. But I did not.

It is good to suffer for righteousness sake, but not for our own mistakes (Matthew 5:10). I recently spoke with a Wisconsin man who had been studying his Bible in the 1970's and learned about the Sabbath and many other truths. I cannot remember who baptized him, but please remember that Herbert Armstrong was baptized by a Baptist minister. Later he found out about the WCG correspondence course and took several lessons. When he asked for a visit from their ministry, he could not believe their arrogance—nothing like the "servants" described in the scriptures. Because he would not obey them, they stopped sending the correspondence course but he continued to study on his own. Others began to study with them and now they have a 100-person congregation which believes most of the same doctrines that you and I do. He considers members of the WCG and offshoots as brethren, but he told me that he was thankful that the Eternal spared him from all of that human government.

Also, I have spoken with a former head of the WCG ministry who admitted that there were members that were put out for completely unjust reasons and never welcomed back. Are these disfellowshipped people, or my Wisconsin friend going to be without reward because they were never a part of a certain corporation? Were there certain years when the Eternal required membership in a certain corporation? When did they begin? When did they end?

I left the Worldwide Church of God because they wanted to take God's Plan of Salvation away from me and that was just too precious to lose. I see a core of ministers that have left that organization for the same reason I did. Some of these men have been hurt as much or more than I and others like me. In any case, they have all been humbled and have shown the incredible courage and strength of character to admit where they were wrong and have asked for a chance to rebuild and continue with God's work. They will make mistakes. They are human. But I don't want to refuse them this chance and by doing that, cut my own chances short.

I am happy to see that you knew you could choose a different congregation when you felt the leaders of your former congregation were departing from the scriptures. I do not believe, however, that the WCG leaders could "take God's Plan of Salvation away" from you or anyone else. I believe there are still converted people in that organization—some are mixed up about government and think they must wait for "God to clean it up." Others have seen that some of the changes are good and are still looking into the changes with which they disagree. Still others may know of no other Sabbath-keeping organization where they can attend and feel their local pastor is still feeding them.

There is only one spiritual organism, the Ekklesia, or "Church." However, as we see in Revelation 2 and 3, there are different groups that can vary greatly in their spiritual effectiveness and fruit that they bear—yet they are all part of His Body. We have to leave groups where good fruit cannot be born (2Ths 3:6, 1Tim 6:5). It is good to see several hundred leaders stand up in 1995 and change jobs to continue teaching the doctrines in which they believe. But we must not forget that 10,000's of brethren made a change before they did. Many of these brethren, by the power of the holy spirit—not by "top-down authority" saw the "new teaching" for what it was. If our congregations had not been structured in a top-down fashion, but along the line of the Synagogue government in which our Savior and the Apostles participated, these brethren could have stood up and refuted the non-Biblical teaching. We might have avoided some of the rending of congregations that occurred.

It is important that you realize the Messiah is our ultimate shepherd. He will "never leave you nor forsake you" (Heb 13:5). "Not that we [Paul and Timothy] have dominion over your faith, but are fellow workers for your joy; for by faith you stand" (2Cor 1:24). This verse shows that it is a great help to have good leaders, but that they do not control our salvation. "...But the just shall live by his faith" (Hab 2:4).

The Biblical Bill of Rights is very short. We can choose life, Deut. 30:19. We can choose whom we will serve, Josh 24:15. We can choose whether to marry or remain single, 1 Cor 7:8. That's about it. But the rewards of choosing to go God's way are enormous.

You have mentioned some Bibl ically-supported choices. We just need to read the Scriptures a little more to see how much our Great Father Offers us: "If you ask anything in My name, I will do it" (John 14:14). We are told to ask our Father (not the human leadership) for spiritual gifts (1Cor 12:31: 14:39). Are there any specific examples of "just members" making any "big decisions" in the congregation? "I urge you, brethren—you know the household of Stephanas, that it is the firstfruits of Achaia, and that they have devoted [Greek tasso is usually translated "appointed"] themselves to the ministry of the saints" (1Cor 16:15). Apollos started teaching of his own accord (Acts 18:24-28).

I do not think that brethren should be continually boasting of their spiritual gifts and fighting for authority over each other. That is the way of Satan. Authority is to be used to help and serve others, not to gain for ourselves. If we have the power of the holy spirit in our lives, we have all the power we need. We do not have to put ourselves "over" other men.

The WCG did teach that God is testing us now to see if we will follow imperfect human authority—then He will know that we will follow His perfect authority. However the Bible does not teach that. It teaches we must "study to show ourselves approved" (2Tim 2:15) and "obey God rather than men"—even if they are (as the High Priest was) the recognized religious leaders of our day (Acts 5:17, 29).

Thank you for writing and reading.

—Norman S. Edwards


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