What is the right hand of fellowship (Galatians 2:9)?

Galatians 2:9 says: "and when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised." In this verse, Paul describes James, Cephas (Peter), and John as pillars of the faith who extended "the right hand of fellowship" to him and Barnabas when they recognized that he had been entrusted with the gospel message and was extending it to the Gentiles. James, Cephas, and John agreed that Paul and Barnabas should continue ministering the gospel to the Gentiles while they continued sharing the gospel with the Jews. By extending the right hand of fellowship, they are affirming that they are in agreement with one another.

In practice, extending the right hand of fellowship is the equivalent of shaking someone's hand or grasping their forearm to signify an agreement, bond of trust, or to establish a new partnership. It is a welcoming gesture. The right hand of fellowship is a visual sign of a welcome into fellowship and community. For Paul and Barnabas, being given the right hand of fellowship was a signifier of their acceptance into the more established group of disciples who were already preaching the gospel. Some churches today speak of the "right hand of fellowship" in welcoming new members and might even have a formal ceremony where the new member is introduced and greeted by the others with a hand shake.

The Greek word koinonia is translated "fellowship" in Galatians 2:9, and it refers to shared partnership or friendship. The early church was in regular fellowship together (Acts 2:46–47) and so is the church today through things like small groups where people share meals and encourage each other in the Lord. Being in fellowship with one another is an essential component to being a healthy church.

Fellowship is key in staying encouraged in Christ and strong in faith. Hebrews 10:23–25 exhorts, "Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near."

Fellowship is key in how we function together as the body of Christ and the family of God. In His high priestly prayer, Jesus prayed, in part, "that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me" (John 17:21). Fellowship is one of the ways we work toward and maintain unity. We even see this in Galatians 2:10; Paul and Barnabas were given instructions to remember the poor, which is something they'd already wanted to do. The leaders were in accord with one another and unified in moving forward.

Whether the "right hand of fellowship" is something we literally give or something we extend to one another in a metaphorical sense, the concept remains important for churches today. "So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind" (Philippians 2:1–2).

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