1. The Sect:
A sect or party of evil influence in early Christianity, especially in the 7 churches of Asia. Their doctrine was similar to that of Balaam, "who taught Balak to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit fornication" (Re 2:14-15). Their practices were strongly condemned by John, who praised the church in Ephesus for "hating their works" (Re 2:6), and blamed the church in Pergamum for accepting in some measure their teaching (Re 2:15). Except that reference is probably made to their influence in the church at Thyatira also, where their leader was "the woman Jezebel, who calleth herself a prophetess" (Re 2:20; compare Re 2:14), no further direct information regarding them is given in Scripture.
Reference to them is frequent in post-apostolic literature. According to Irenaeus (Adv. Haer., i.26,3; iii.10,7), followed by Hippolytus (Philos., vii.36), they were founded by Nicolaus, the proselyte of Antioch, who was one of the seven chosen to serve at the tables (Ac 6:5). Irenaeus, as also Clement of Alexandria (Strom., ii.20), Tertullian and others, unite in condemning their practices in terms similar to those of John; and reference is also made to their Gnostic tendencies. In explanation of the apparent incongruity of such an immoral sect being founded by one of "good report, full of the Spirit and of wisdom" (compare Ac 6:3), Simcox argues that their lapse may have been due to reaction from original principles of a too rigid asceticism. A theory, started in comparatively modern times, and based in part on the similarity of meaning of the Greek "Nikolaus," and the Hebrew "Balaam," puts forward the view that the two sects referred to under these names were in reality identical. Yet if this were so, it would not have been necessary for John to designate them separately.
3. Nicolaitan Controversy:
The problem underlying the Nicolaitan controversy, though so little direct mention is made of it in Scripture, was in reality most important, and concerned the whole relation of Christianity to paganism and its usages. The Nicolaitans disobeyed the command issued to the Gentilechurches, by the apostolic council held at Jerusalem in 49-50 AD, that they should refrain from the eating of "things sacrificed to idols" (Ac 15:29). Such a restriction, though seemingly hard, in that it prevented the Christian communities from joining in public festivals, and so brought upon them suspicion and dislike, was yet necessary to prevent a return to a pagan laxity of morals. To this danger the Nicolaitans were themselves a glaring witness, and therefore John was justified in condemning them. In writing to the Corinthians, Paul gives warning against the same evil practices, basing his arguments on consideration for the weaker brethren (compare 1Co 8:1-13).
Simcox, "Revelation" in the Cambridge Bible; H. Cowan in Hastings, Dictionary of the Bible (five volumes), article "Nicolaitans"; H.B. Swete, The Apocalypse of John, lxx ff, 27, 28, 37.
C. M. Kerr