What is the doctrine of Balaam?
In Revelation 2:14, the church of Pergamum is scolded for tolerating the “teaching of Balaam,” or the “doctrine of Balaam.” Balaam’s name is also invoked in 2 Peter 2:15 and Jude 1:11, both in warnings about the conduct and message of false teachers. All of these are references to the Old Testament character of Balaam, who tried unsuccessfully to prophesy against the people of Israel (Numbers 22). He eventually advised King Balak of Moab, the enemy of Israel, to pursue a campaign of seduction against them (Numbers 31:8). The doctrine of Balaam is not only a serious problem, but a devious one. When the frontal assault failed, Balaam took a back-door approach.
Balaam, a prophet from Mesopotamia, was willing to use his God-given talents for illicit purposes. Even though he knew Balak was God’s enemy, he tried to sell his prophetic gifts to help him. When that didn’t work, Balaam counseled Balak on the most effective way to weaken Israel. This was through seduction, using Moabite and Midianite women to tempt the Israelites into sexual relationships and into pagan rituals. The Israelites who participated brought God’s judgment upon themselves (Numbers 25:1–9).
According to 2 Peter 2:15, Balaam’s “way” is a choice to promote falsehood for financial reasons. According to Jude 1:11, Balaam’s “error” was his willingness to accommodate pagan beliefs out of greed. Jude 1:4 also refers to the sin of those “who pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality.” One trait of false teachers in the church is that they attempt to turn Christian liberty into a “freedom” to be promiscuous (see Romans 14:1–5).
Putting these ideas together gives a clear view of the doctrine of Balaam. It is the attitude that one can be fully cooperative with the world and still serve God. The doctrine of Balaam teaches compromise, wanting Christians to forget they are called to be separate and holy (Leviticus 20:26; 1 Peter 1:2); the doctrine of Balaam makes believers indistinguishable from the unbelieving world (Matthew 5:13). The doctrine of Balaam is a belief that “a little sin” doesn’t hurt (Galatians 5:9), especially if there’s some financial or personal benefit involved (1 Timothy 6:5). A person following the doctrine of Balaam is willing to compromise his beliefs for the sake of economics. He acts to enable sinful behaviors for personal gain or even participate in them (Romans 1:32).
In practical terms, the teaching or doctrine of Balaam is the view that Christians can—or even should—compromise their convictions for the sake of popularity, money, sexual gratification, or personal gain. It’s the attitude that treats sin as “no big deal.” Christians can’t—and shouldn’t—totally shun the presence of sinners or unbelievers (Luke 7:34; 1 Corinthians 5:9–13), but we are obligated to stand up for truth (Ephesians 4:25), righteousness (Proverbs 23:20; Romans 14:22), and goodness (2 Peter 1:5, Matthew 5:16), whether it’s what others want to hear or not (John 4:16–18; 8:11; Acts 24:24–25).
Who are the Nicolaitans mentioned in Revelation 2:6, 14-15?
The exact origin of the Nicolaitans is unclear. Some Bible commentators believe they were a heretical sect who followed the teachings of Nicolas—whose name means “one who conquers the people”—who was possibly one of the deacons of the early church mentioned in Acts 6:5. It is possible that Nicolas became an apostate, denying the true faith and became part of a group holding “the doctrine of Balaam,” who taught Israel “to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality.” Clement of Alexandria says, “They abandoned themselves to pleasure like goats, leading a life of self-indulgence.” Their teaching perverted grace and replaced liberty with license.
Other commentators believe that these Nicolaitans were not so called from any man, but from the Greek word Nicolah, meaning “let us eat,” as they often encouraged each other to eat things offered to idols. Whichever theory is true, it is certain that the deeds of the Nicolaitans were an abomination to Christ. They, like the Gnostics and other false teachers, abused the doctrine of grace and tried to introduce licentiousness in its place (2 Peter 2:15, 19; Jude 1:4).
Jesus commends the church of Ephesus for hating the deeds of the Nicolaitans as He does (Revelation 2:6). No doubt the leaders of the Ephesian church protected their flock from these destructive heresies and kept their people from committing the same evil deeds. All sin is hateful to Christ, as it should be to His followers, as we hate men’s evil deeds, not the men themselves. For the church at Pergamos, Jesus had not commendation, but censure. Unlike the Ephesians, they actually embraced the teachings of the Nicolaitans (Revelation 2:15). Jesus warns them that unless they repent, they are in danger of the judgment that is sure to fall on those who teach false doctrine, attack His church, and destroy His people. The sword of judgment is poised over their heads, and His patience is not limitless (Revelation 2:16; 19:15).
The lesson for us is that the church of the Lord Jesus throughout the ages has been plagued by those of the Nicolaitan spirit. The only way to recognize false teaching is to be intimately familiar with truth through the diligent study of the Word of God.