The phrase the right hand of fellowship is found in Galatians 2:9. There, Paul recounts, “James, Cephas and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised.” At this relatively early stage in his ministry, Paul reported to the elders in Jerusalem on what he had been preaching, and the other apostles affirmed their support of his gospel. Their support was signified by extending “the right hand of fellowship” to Paul and Barnabas.
Giving the right hand of fellowship was “a solemn act of partnership signifying acceptance, agreement and trust” (footnote, Galatians 2:9, The Amplified Bible, the Lockman Foundation, 2015). To this day, a handshake or a clasping of the right hand or forearm is used as a way to affirm a promise, to seal a deal, to communicate mutual trust, or to enter a partnership. In the case of Paul and Barnabas meeting James, John, and Peter, the giving of the right hand of fellowship seems to also have included the idea of accepting someone into an existing group. It was a handshake of fellowship, after all.
Within some churches today, the practice of extending the right hand of fellowship has continued, and it’s often still called by the biblical terminology. As part of the process of welcoming new members into a local congregation, the “right hand of fellowship” is extended to a person who has expressed faith in Christ, has been baptized (or soon will be), or has expressed interest in church membership. This person is publicly recognized during a church worship service, and after the service existing members shake hands with him or her. The handshakes are part welcome, part congratulations, and part esprit de corps.
The concept of extending the right hand of fellowship, in the sense of welcoming a new believer into a church family, is an important one. The word translated “fellowship” is from the Greek koinonia, referring to friendship or sharing in a partnership. In the very first church, the believers “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). Strong friendships and fellowship are an essential part of a healthy and growing local church.
The first church in Jerusalem considered their relationships with one another an important part of their daily lives: “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:46–47). They joined together as a group in some way each day, with people coming to faith daily during this time.
Throughout the New Testament, the idea of “fellowship” and ministry to “one another” is frequently noted. In the final reference to fellowship in the New Testament, we read, “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). Fellowship is a vital part of living for Christ. The concept of giving the right hand of fellowship to new believers, whether practiced literally or observed figuratively, places a proper emphasis on this important part of life in the Body of Christ.