Contrary to many modern critics of the practice, church discipline is biblical. It is not a new invention. Jesus' instructions in Matthew 18 are very clear: the church has been given the keys of the kingdom. This means that the church must do the work of binding (membership) and loosing (discipline). The Apostle Paul echoes this teaching in 1 Corinthians 15 when he addresses a situation that was going on in the church at Corinth. Paul told the Corinthian church to "Let him who has done this be removed from among you" (1 Cor. 5:2b).
But church discipline is not simply to be thought of as a group of elders or pastors confronting an individual and then deciding to remove the unrepentant person from the membership of the church. No, church discipline begins with an individual Christian confronting another individual Christian with the hope of helping that brother or sister remove the speck from their eye, after having removed the log from his/her own eye. After taking one or two others along to aid in clear communication and demonstrate the seriousness of the situation, if the sinning member still refuses to repent, Jesus says to tell it to the church. While this necessarily involves the leaders of the church, it does not leave the matter in their hands alone.
Jesus made it very clear that the authority to discipline unrepentant professing believers belongs to the church. Paul wrote his instructions in 1 Corinthians 5 to the entire church, not just the leaders of the Corinthian church. But why is congregational involvement so essential to biblical church discipline? Let me suggest five reasons.
1. It is the way Jesus said church discipline is to be done.
This is by far the most important reason listed here. This would be enough if none of the other reasons existed. No other reason would be totally convincing without this one. Dear pastor, you do not know better than Jesus. I know that congregational church government sometimes feels cumbersome, but God has ordained it this way for a reason. He knows better than we do. Trust Him and do what He says.
2. Church discipline starts with the congregation.
When many people think about church discipline, they think about removing people from the church. This ought not be. Rare should be the times when we reach the final step of church discipline where excommunication becomes unavoidable. Church discipline begins in a very informal manner (Matt. 18:15). It is so informal that we would never refer to it in such a formal way when actually doing it. We would be more likely to use the language of the writer of Hebrews, "stirring one another up to love and good works."
Church discipline begins with one believer confronting another believer in his/her sin. It doesn't begin when the leaders of the church are made aware of the situation. It doesn't begin when the congregation is formally made aware of the situation. And it certainly doesn't begin when the congregation votes to remove an unrepentant member. It begins when one believer comes alongside another believer to help him/her grow in Christ. This should be a regular occurrence in the life of the church.
3. It will prevent you from being rash.
I can make a biblical argument for the first two reasons. This one is of a more practical nature.
You have been dealing with a situation where one of your members is caught in sin for what feels like an eternity. You are ready to move on from steps one and two of church discipline. You have spent time thinking, praying, and seeking the advice of others. You are convinced that this is the right thing to do. But then you think about the day you announce the situation to the church. You realize that things aren't going to go well. You know that the congregation is going to stop you dead in your tracks. This should cause you to slow down.
You may be right. In a perfect world the congregation would see things as you do and willingly (but with sadness) remove the unrepentant member. Well, scratch that. In a perfect world there would be no need for church discipline. But you get my point. This reason for congregational involvement leads to the next one.
4. God will graciously use it to prevent you from causing harm to His church.
Again, you may be right. It really may be time to remove the unrepentant sinner from the fellowship of the church. But the fact that you can't do it alone will prevent you from creating a situation where half of your people walk out because you removed someone that they didn't think should be removed.
Church discipline is for the good of the unrepentant sinner and the name of Christ, but it is also for the good of the church. If proceeding with steps 3 and 4 of church discipline is going to cause irreparable harm to the church and your ministry there, God may sovereignly keep it from happening by the very fact that you need a congregational vote to proceed. He is in charge like that.
In such a scenario, you can trust the sovereign God of the universe, and know that you have done all you can do on your own for the good of the unrepentant sinner and the name of Christ. You can trust the Chief Shepherd to protect His flock.
5. There is wisdom in a multitude of counselors.
I keep saying that you may be right. But you know what? You may be wrong. Not only does congregational involvement in church discipline procedures involve the wisdom of your fellow leaders, it also involves the wisdom of your brothers and sisters in Christ who fill your pews and have been serving Jesus for a long time. You do not have a monopoly on God's wisdom. God speaks to all believers through His Word. We can lean into that wisdom when we seek to do things as God has told us to do them and involve the congregation.
The bottom line in all of this is that God has told us in His Word that church discipline is the work of church. Pastors have a role to play in this. Other church leaders have a role to play. But it is the church that has been given the keys of the kingdom. Those who shepherd God's church must exercise oversight, but they must do so not as those who domineer over the flock, but as examples and fellow sheep under the Chief Shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ.