Yes, Christians should still use a word like “savage”. It accurately describes the human condition before Gospel light comes. Let me explain.
In 2017, Wheaton College removed the word “savage” from a plaque honoring a group of murdered missionaries. In the early 1950’s, a band of American men were speared to death by the Auca Indians in Ecuador. “Auca” means “savage” in the local language. Some of those men, like Jim Elliot, were graduates from Wheaton College.
The president of Wheaton, Philip Ryken, claimed the college removed the word because it was regarded as “pejorative” and “had been used historically to dehumanize and mistreat peoples around the world.”
Wheaton made a mistake. I think “savage” is a helpful word that should be preserved. Here are three reasons why.
First, biblically, many of the authors of Scripture use similar language to describe man’s fallen state. Paul used the word “savage” in Acts 20:29 to describe vicious and cruel opponents of the Gospel. Jesus calls sinners children of Satan (Jn. 8:44). Peter calls them “blind” (2Pt. 1:9). The author of Hebrews calls them “ignorant” (Heb. 5:2). No one is denying that “savage” is politically incorrect in today’s world. It certainly is. But so is calling someone a child of the Devil. Should we scrub that verse too?
Second, theologically, the term savage correctly reflects sinful man’s position before God. The word “savage” carries the idea of wild, ignorant, and uncivilized. This is how Peter describes man’s position before Christianity came to him. He had inherited from his forefathers his “futile” way of thinking (1Pt. 1:18). He was in darkness before Gospel light came. If Wheaton can remove “savage” from a plaque, shouldn’t the Swiss remove post tenebras lux from the Reformation Wall in Geneva. Darkness? What darkness?
Some of my African brothers object to their ancient ancestors being called “savages”. This is insulting and racist, they say. In truth, it is insulting to the gospel to pretend that those who lived in thousands of years of darkness were really not that bad. We insult the gospel when we say a culture that hasn’t had a Christian worldview for a thousand years is on par with a culture that has. If that is true, then the gospel doesn’t really make much difference. The Gospel may get you a ticket to Heaven, but it certainly doesn’t revamp every sector civilization. So says our modern world.
Softening words can twist the truth. For example, God’s enemies purposefully chose a happy word like “gay” to describe an abomination the Lord hates. In the same way, softening “savage” to a more appropriate word like “native” or “indigenous person” waters down their terrible position before a Holy God. It deadens the pain they must feel to find the cure.
Third, historically, many of the great missions of old have used the word with great effect. Elisabeth Elliot published a book a few years after the killings entitled The Savage My Kinsman. She tells the story of returning to and living with the very tribe that murdered her husband Jim. Before the Gospel, every culture is savage. After new birth, we becomes brothers and sisters in Christ.
William Carey was not afraid to use such language in his world-altering pamphlet on missions An Enquiry. He used the word “pagan” ninety-nine times. He used the word “Mohammedan” fifty-three times. He spoke of the natives’ “uncivilized” and “barbarous way of living,” not as away to insult foreigners but as a method to address his own culture’s past savagery. He said that if the apostles of old could go “among Germans and Gauls, and still more barbarous Britons” how much more should we take the light around the world today. How true. Savagery has nothing to do with skin color. It has everything to do with the heart.
Conclusion: Scripture, biblical theology and missions history supports an accurate use of the term “savage”. Just as the Brits and Germans were savages before Gospel light, so are those from every culture before Christianity seeps through.