The PTL scandal, which has shaken the multimillion-dollar world of Christian television evangelism for the past eight months, is threatening to ensnare two nationwide accounting firms that served as the ministry's auditors under its former chairman, Jim Bakker.

A $758 million class action lawsuit, filed this week by a group of PTL "partners" or contributors, charges that the Philadelphia-based accounting firm of Laventhol & Horwath and the New York-based firm of Deloitte, Haskins & Sells participated in an elaborate conspiracy to divert millions of dollars in contributions to the personal use of the Bakkers and their top aides.

The lawsuit, charging violations of federal racketeering and securities laws, covers a wide range of well-publicized allegations of wrongdoing at PTL, most of which are already being addressed by a federal grand jury probe into the ministry. The criminal investigation is being conducted by a federal task force that includes officials of the Justice Department, the Internal Revenue Service and the Postal Service.

But the suit raises anew allegations that Laventhol & Horwath and Deloitte, Haskins may have bent the rules of the accounting profession to protect one of their major clients. While these allegations have been strongly denied by both firms, the controversy over their actions mirrors a longstanding debate over the role and responsibilities of outside accountants who discover financial irregularities by their clients.

The suit in particular focuses on the Charlotte office of Laventhol & Horwath, which succeeded the Deloitte firm as PTL's outside independent auditors in 1985 and served in that capacity until April 1987. It was during this period that the most serious of the alleged abuses at the $129 million-a-year television ministry took place, including the payment of millions of dollars in salaries and bonuses to the Bakkers and their top aides, apparently without the knowledge or approval of the ministry's board of directors.

The contributors' lawsuit charges that these payments were made from a confidential executive payroll account that was kept at a Charlotte bank and maintained, administered and balanced by William Spears, a senior partner in Laventhol's Charlotte office. After writing checks on the account -- sometimes to themselves -- Bakker's top aides "then called Spears to have him enter the check amount in the check register, which he kept in his office, and to have him state if more funds were needed for the account," the suit states.

A secretary in Laventhol's Charlotte office said yesterday that Spears was at a partners' meeting in Florida and was unavailable for comment. The firm's general counsel, Barry Augenbraun, issued a statement denying any wrongdoing by Spears or the Laventhol firm.

The role of Laventhol in maintaining the secret account was first reported in a May 28, 1987, Washington Post story that is attached as an exhibit in the lawsuit. Some critics have raised questions as to whether keeping such an account is a de facto "management function" that would violate accounting industry standards requiring independent auditors to remain at arm's length from the firms they are auditing.

But two lawyers who prepared the suit, Wendell Bird of Atlanta and Thomas T. Anderson of Palm Springs, Calif., said yesterday that their allegations against Laventhol go beyond violation of industry standards. One exhibit attached to the complaint is an accounting work sheet titled "unrecorded payroll information," allegedly handwritten by Spears, that details huge payments to Bakker and his wife Tammy Faye, as well as top PTL officials Richard Dortch, David Taggart and others.

Spears and Laventhol permitted these improper payments "because PTL was its largest client for its Charlotte office," the suit charges.

The suit also charges that the Deloitte firm, while not maintaining the executive payroll account, failed to disclose its existence to board members and contributors. And it alleges that both firms "gave false assurances of financial propriety" to PTL contributors by signing annual financial statements "that omitted any note or qualification."

The Charlotte office of Deloitte, Haskins, one of the country's "Big Eight" accounting firms, served as PTL auditors between May 31, 1979, and 1984. "We did perform some audit work {for PTL} for a period ending early in 1984 and we have had no relationship with the entities since that time," said firm partner Joseph Elmlinger.

The accounting firms are only two of the defendants named in the complaint filed in U.S. District court in Charlotte. The suit also accuses former PTL insiders, builders, banks and creditors of other crimes.