A broad coalition of church and ministry leaders has urged a boycott of the controversial new gender-neutral version of America's best-selling Bible.

More than 100 influential pastors, theologians and ministry heads -- from conservative evangelicals to Pentecostals -- have united to sign a statement saying Today's New International Version (TNIV) is not "sufficiently trustworthy to commend to the church."

Objecting to the TNIV's replacing masculine references with gender-neutral expressions in places where they maintain that important meaning is lost, they say the new version is unsuitable for use in church preaching and personal study.

Signatories include Christian Broadcasting Network founder Pat Robertson, senior Foursquare leader Jack Hayford, former Southern Baptist Convention president Paige Patterson, theologian J.I. Packer, Prison Fellowship founder Charles Colson, Promise Keepers founder Bill McCartney, Focus on the Family president Charles Dobson, "Prayer of Jabez" author Ken Wilkinson, and Concerned Women for America president Sandy Rios.

Issued yesterday, the statement broadens one issued in January -- when publication of the TNIV was announced -- by 30-plus scholars who said the version "should not be commended to the church." Released two months ago, the TNIV has been produced by the International Bible Society (IBS), whose New International Version (NIV) has sold more than 150 million copies worldwide in the last 22 years. The full TNIV Bible is due to be published in 2005.

The TNIV critics -- drawn together by the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) and FamilyLife Ministries -- say the TNIV's use of gender-neutral language is more important than in other previous Bible versions because it might ride on the reputation of the NIV to "vie for a place as the church's commonly accepted Bible."

While accepting gender-neutral expressions are appropriate in some instances, they say the TNIV "has gone beyond acceptable translation standards in several important respects," detailing examples where such changes mean important meaning is lost. Translating "saints" as "believers" in passages in Romans could "sacrifice precious connotations of holiness," they say. "To justify translating 'saints' as 'believers' because it refers to believers is like justifying translating 'sweetheart' as 'wife' because that's who it refers to."

IBS today dismissed the new statement as an attack that "continues to misrepresent" the TNIV, and pointed to its own "continually growing" list of supporters. Among those who have endorsed the TNIV are leading megachurch pastors Jim Cymbala of the Brooklyn Tabernacle in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Ted Haggard of New Life Church, Colorado Springs, Colo., preacher John Stott, and author Philip Yancey.

IBS said that the latest CBMW-sponsored statement inaccurately reflected gender changes in the TNIV. The version replaces masculine nouns and pronouns, where they are used generically, "with more precise language" such as "people" instead of "man," but keeps masculine language if the text specifically refers to men.

"While these changes impact less than 2 percent of the text, they improve the reader's understanding of Scripture," said IBS, adding that it "continues to receive strong support" for the TNIV.

The January announcement of the TNIV's publication sparked controversy, with opponents claiming that IBS has gone back on an agreement signed in 1997 -- when news of the gender-neutral translation effort first broke -- to shelve plans for an inclusive-language version of the NIV. IBS said that the TNIV will not replace the NIV but will be sold alongside it.

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