Early on the morning of March 7, a shopkeeper in Bogota, Colombia, ran across the street, banged on the outside gate of a residence where Brenda Bitterman was staying and shouted a message she had hoped she would never hear:

"They've found Chet's body in a bus!"

"Almost seven weeks had passed since her husband, linguist Chester A.Bitterman III, 28, had been kidnaped by leftist terrorists. They said they would kill him unless his organization, the Sycliffe Bible Translators, withdrew all 209 of its people from Colombia.

The Huntington Beach, Calif.-based translation organization and its overseas arm, the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), refused to yield during the 48 tense days of threats, rumors and deadlines.

The world's largest Bible translation group has been working -- quietly, for the most part -- for 50 years among remote peoples whose languages are unwritten. 4tWith the help of recorders, phonetics and the science of linguistics -- and contributions from individuals and grants from governments -- its workers eventually teach tribal people how to read and write, and present to them a New Testment printed in their native tongue.

But Bitterman's kidnaping and murder have dramatized a controversy surrounding Sycliffe that has been simmering, especially in Latin American countries, for a decade.

The guerrillas -- members of a faction of the M-19, or April 19 Movement -- accused Bitterman and the Summer Institute of spying for the Central Intelligence Agency, destroying indigenous cultures, violating Colombian sovereignty and looting the country's resources.

Other critics, including some anthropologists, activist students and liberal church bodies, have charged SIL with proselytizing and using a Protestant ethical base to promote capitalism.

Wycliffe leaders and officials of the Colombian and U.S. governments, and others who know about the translators' work, have emphatically denied the charges. 4tWycliffe officials say the dictionaries and primers they prepare for tribal people give them group identification and pride in their cultures as well as helping to preserve their heritage.

The organization, sometimes referred to as "the alphabet maker of the world," has 4,255 workers -- called "members" -- in 35 countries. They have catalogued 5,103 lkanguages, some of them spoken by fewer than 100 people., The New Testament has now been published in about 150 or those tongues and Wycliffe linguists are working on 725 others.

"To accomplish Christ' mission,' the organization's central principle says, "the Gospel must be given to every man in the language he understands best. No group is too small or too insignificant and no language is too hard. Missionaries are not permanent, neither are they indispensable. Churches will grow without them -- provided they have the written world of God."

Wycliffe Bible Translators, named after the 14th-century English Bible translator, John Wycliffe, is the extended vision of one man, William Cameron Townsend. Townsend, a native of Downey, Calif., attended Occidental College near Los Angeles and at the villages of Guatemala. There, in 1917, he was confronted by one of the many Indian people who couldn't read the Spanish-language Bibles he was peddling.

Flipping through the pages of a Bible, a member of the Cakchiquel tribe blurted:

"You say this is God's word, senor, but if your God is so great, why can't he talk in Cakchiquel?"

On the spot, Townsend decided "to give God another tongue, little realizing that I would be devoting the rest of my life to this work."

Fourteen years later, a version of the New Testament in Cakchiquel, which is spoken by about 25,000 Indians, was dedicated. And in May 1931, Townsend presented the first bound copy of the then-president of Guatemala, Gen. Jorge Ubico.

Today, at 85, Townsend is still robust and active. Church historians rank him as a "foremost modern missionary stateman."

When he completed the Cakchiquel translation project 50 years ago, he and his wife left Guatemala to set up a smaller summer course in an abandoned farmhouse in the Arkansas Ozarks. Called the Summer Institute of Linguistics, its purposes was to train translators.

Now, four American universities and nine abroad sponsor Wycliffe training programs, "and one of our workers, Dr. Kenneth Pike, has become one of the world's foremost linguists," Townsend siad recently.

Wycliffe Bible Translators, the religious corporate counterpart to the Summer Institute, was born in 1942. By then, 50 trained young people were engaged in translation work among tribes in Mexico and with Navajo Indians in the United States.

A few years later, the Townsends trekked to the Amazon jungle, where they established the Wycliffe Jungle Aviation and Radio Service, which provides communication and logistical support for the translators. It is headquartered in Waxhaw, N.C., where the Townsends now live.

Half of the growing Wycliffe team of more than 4,000 workers now is composed of translators. The remainder consists of support personnel -- doctors, nurses, pilots, mechanics, teachers, editors, radio technicians, printers, buyers and secretaries.

Wycliffe work extends to Australia, Asia, New Guinea, South, Central and North American and Africa. And the Townsends have made 11 trips to the Soviet Union to analyze its 168 minority languages.

Translating the Bible into previsously unwritten languages is arduous; Wycliffe linguists, who often are husband-and-wife teams, allow two or three years just to learn a new tongue. In all, it ususally takes 15 to 25 years to produce a completed New Testament.

Mr. and Mrs. Herb Zimmerman, SIL workers in Yellowknife, in Canada's Northwest Territories, are translating the Bible into Dogrib, an Indian language.

They have been at the task since 1964 and so far have finished the Gospel of Mark and 10 percent of Luke and John. They figure that they will need eight moe years to cmplete the New Testament and parts of the Old Testament.

In Oniluradarannai, Papua-New Guinea, Des and Jenny Oatridge, who have been deciphering the Binumarien language for 22 years, have nearly completed its vernacular New Testament.

In Colombia, SIL workers have helped Guahibo Indians develop the country's first indigenous-language newspaper, La Voz de Cavasi. The newspaper ofice, which contains two typewriters and three silk-scren printing outfits, is a palm-thatched house two days' walk from the nearest dirt road.

Jungle journalists put out the 12-pge paper every two months and distribute 200 copies by dugout canoe.

Wycliffe leaders point to projects like the Guahibo newspaper, bilingual education work and community development as examples that the Bible group helps -- rather than hinders or destroys -- ethnic minority groups.

Why then the crescendo of criticism?

"Until 1972, our work drew basically praise, commendation and good press," Jerry Elder, the Summer Institute's Latin America director, said during an interview. "We have cooperated with the academic world and the national governments."

Most of the criticism and suspicion of Wycliffe, its leaders believe, stem from the "radical critique of capitalistic society" voiced by "Western intelligentsia," particularly activist students and some liberal church leaders.

The Summer Institute was ordered out of Ecuador this year, and critics who nearly succeeded in forcing its workers out of Peru in 1976, have caused problems for SIL in Mexico and Brazil as well as in Colombia. Bitterman was not the first Wycliffe worker to be killed; one was shot by kidnappers in Vietnam during the war, at least one other worker was murdered and several others have been taken hostage but released unharmed.

Rumors of Wycliffe spy connections have been fueled by the presence of SIL planes and radios in remote areas.

Wycliffe workers -- like other missionaries -- often come across information that could be valuable to CIA undercover agents.

To Rev. George Cotter, a Maryknoll priest who has been a missionary in Tanzania and Latin America, said in a recent article in Christian Century magazine that "because missionaries spend years working with grass-roots people and helping the unfortunates among them, they win trust and confidence.

"They learn who are the most promising leaders, what are the region's problems, and they are often given access to people and areas closed to most outsiders."

Cotter suggests that CIA agents spin intricate communications webs through which they could elicit sensitive information from naive missionaries.

Allegations that Wycliffe is a front for the CIA have been strongly rejected by government officials as well as by Wycliffe leaders. The latter say any SIL worker connected with the CIA "would immediately be cut off."

Wycliffe workers raise their own salaries through gifts from individuals and churches in their home countries and are not paid through public funds.

SIL does receive project money, however, from the U.S. Agency for International Development, Canadian and European international development agencies and host countries. Combined 1980 income for SIL and Wycliffe entities was $35 million, 90 percent of its from private contributions. Field programs account for 75 percent of the organization's expenses; administration and fund raising, 16 percent.

Host government often provide certain privileges and facilities for SIL workers, such as office space, visas and waivers or reductions of normal duties or taxes. Governments also often take major responsibility for the safety of SIL workers in exchange for accomplishment of government-assigned literacy projects.

Political groups that oppose a regime in power are apt to oppose SIL as well because of the cooperative relationship between the two.

Said George Cowan, Wycliffe's president: "Our policy is active cooperation with host governments . . . Yet we have never so bound ourselves to any government that we were forced to assume its tactics or be dependent on its political continuance."

Groups such as the Inter-American Indian Congress and the North American Congress on Latin America voice political opposition to Wycliffe. They say SIL represents a kind of velvet-glove approach to "civilizing" indigenous peoples, paving the way for exploitation.

Elder, the SIL Latin American director, readily concedes that cultures are changing.

"Indians in Latin America are being changed by boat people [traders], commercial hucksters and military mercenaries," he says. "SIL acts as a buffer . . .

"Indians want to hold onto and use their own languages, to gain title to their own lands, to have bilingual teachers and health aides trained from their own people to obtain their personal documents and to do business without being taken advantage of . . . Essentially, the things the Indians want are what SIL is helping them get."