Feb. 11, 2005-The release of a new Bible translation this week pushes to the forefront a hair-splitting debate among evangelical Christians. Depending on whom you ask, the Today's New International Version Bible is either a way to connect with a new generation or a paean to the feminist agenda.

It's an update of the New International Version, the best-selling Bible of all time. The NIV, published by Zondervan in 1978, has surpassed the King James Version in popularity. One in three Bibles bought is an NIV.

For evangelicals, it's the pew Bible of choice. And many don't want it changed. Yet Zondervan insisted it was time for an update. The English language has undergone warp-speed changes in the last 30 years, they say, and the TNIV reflects a more "gender accurate" language than its predecessor. It took 45,000 changes to the text to do that.

That doesn't mean the Bible has been "neutered," Zondervan is careful to add. God is still referred to in the masculine. But where the original language was meant to include both men and women, translators have changed "man" and "brothers" to "human beings" and "brothers and sisters."

That's helpful for the generation that has grown up learning English in an inclusive way, said Paul Caminiti, vice president and Bible publisher for Zondervan. Since the 1970s, many textbooks have used gender-inclusive language. Schoolchildren may get marked down for using exclusively masculine pronouns. As a result, many 18- to 34-year-olds are "used to hearing English in what is now taken to be the correct way," Mr. Caminiti said. That means with inclusive language.

Critics, however, say the TNIV interprets Scripture with an agenda that many evangelicals do not support.

Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a past president of the Southern Baptist Convention, said the translators went beyond trying to clarify meaning.

"They have an agenda-to attempt to force egalitarian and even feminist perspectives on readers in the name of translation," he said.

"This is spin city if I ever saw it. Many evangelical scholars do not buy it for a moment."

Dr. Kenneth Barker, a member of the TNIV translation team, said evangelicals looking for a feminist agenda in the new Bible are misguided. Using standard Greek-Hebrew lexicons and dictionaries, his team changed passages only where the text meant to include both men and women, he said. Guidelines used for the TNIV are the same as used by the American Bible Society and Wycliffe Bible Translators.

They differ, however, from the anti-inclusive Colorado Springs Guidelines drawn up in 1997 by James Dobson of Focus on the Family. Critics charge that Zondervan changed its mind on sticking to those guidelines. Zondervan says it refused to sign on in the first place because it had already published gender-accurate Bibles.

Evangelical concerns began when the International Bible Society, a nondenominational organization that sponsors Bible translations and holds the copyright to the NIV, announced in 1997 that it planned to update the NIV. Zondervan has since said it will continue to publish the original NIV. When Zondervan released the New Testament portion of the Today's New International Version in 2002, evangelical critics unleashed a slew of articles and books to refute what they viewed as a "gender neutral" translation. Dr. Vern Poythress is a professor of New Testament interpretation at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia and co-author of TNIV and the Gender Neutral Controversy. He says the TNIV translators renegotiated the meaning of Scripture to accommodate popular culture.

"The question is, where do you draw the line? In translation, you have to be faithful. You can't always be looking in your rearview mirror," he said. Certainly, there were gender-accurate Bible translations already on the market, including the New Revised Standard Version, the New Century Version, and the New Living Translation.

But it was different with the NIV, which had found a home on pastor's desks, seminary professors' shelves, and in the pew.

"Certain individuals and organizations sent out inflammatory sound bites that say, 'Here's someone changing the Word of God.' It sends hackles up the back of people's necks," Mr. Caminiti said.

Proponents of the TNIV say it follows in a long tradition of getting the Bible into the common people's language, much like Martin Luther did when he translated Scripture into German. It's like crossing over into the 21st century, culturally speaking, they say.

Ben Irwin, 28, who heads up the Bible marketing team for Zondervan, said baby boomers and older readers are used to translating in their minds "human beings" or "men and women" whenever they see "mankind." But research shows 18- to 34-year-olds misinterpret it 90 percent of the time.

"That is huge," he said. "The reality is language changes all the time. You could say we still want to use it in the way we've always used it, but you'd be miscommunicating to your audience."