Forty million citizens belong to Protestant or Orthodox churches that are members of the National Council of Churches, the nation's largest interfaith organization and well-known for its humane service programs. If you swallow whole the attacks made last month on NCC by Reader's Digest and "60 Minutes," the organization has been pulling a fast one by lavishing the faithful's money on radical left causes or groups.

The Reader's Digest article was titled "Do You Know Where Your Church Offerings Go?" It answered the question in the subtitle: "You'd better find out--because they may be supporting revolution instead of religion." "60 Minutes" also attacked with a question: "The Gospel According to Whom?"

Two attacks in one month by major mass-audience powers would seem to suggest that the NCC has been caught in an abuse-of-trust-scam, the kind that regularly surfaces in American religion. But something else surfaced in the two stories: Instead of independent journalism at its investigatory best, both Reader's Digest and "60 Minutes" uncritically aired some charges advanced by a new conservative group called the Institute on Religion and Democracy.

According to the institute's chairman, Edmund Robb, "the NCC has substituted revolution for religion." There is "a bias toward the totalitarian left."

When NCC sought to defend itself from the charges, Robb assumed the self-elected role of a national spokesman for the fed-up little man in the pew: "The American people are not going to be satisfied by a slick public-relations campaign. The American people want accountability. The American people are concerned that there's a bias toward the radical left, even Marxist-Leninism under the guise of liberation theology."

Before examining the alleged leftward drives of the council, some facts about its money need airing. The NCC annually receives about two-tenths of one percent of the nearly $6 billion annually collected by its member churches. Most of the collected money stays local. The NCC share amounts to roughly $12 million, about a third of the organization's projected 1983 budget. More than 90 percent of the NCC total budget is channeled to specific causes--from flood relief in India to hunger in Southeast Asia--as singled out by member churches.

The council gave the three humanitarian and activist groups mentioned on "60 Minutes" less than $35,000 total in 1982. The best known of the three is the Washington Office on Latin America, a respected mainline group relied on by congressional committees for accurate information on Latin America. Another is the Ecumenical Program for Interamerican Communication and Action, a Washington group run by an Episcopal priest.

Whatever revolutions are costing these days, and presumably inflation has hit them too, they aren't going to make it on the piddling sums being supplied by the National Council of Churches.

The theme of the Reader's Digest article is that the NCC is soft on communist regimes in places such as Vietnam. The council, through its relief and development agency, the Church World Service, has given nearly $500,000 to programs in Vietnam in recent years. But through as careful monitoring as possible, the money went to the Vietnamese poor and hungry. "No cash payments are made to the Vietnamese government," the council states categorically. "On-site inspections by (CWS) have been carried out regularly."

The council has been working in Vietnam since 1954. In the past seven years, it has resettled 69,000 Indochinese refugees.

On "60 Minutes," the image of NCC and its sister group, the World Council of Churches, taking money from the unsuspecting faithful and dishing it out to leftist revolutionaries was reinforced. These "revolutionary groups" included the Patriotic Front of Zimbabwe, which received funds for food and medicine and later became the elected government that was recognized by the United States.

Stonings from the reactionary right are nothing new for the council. It was smeared in the 1950s as pro-communist. Its commitment to human rights and civil rights as a basic extension of Christianity has led to charges that it was taking religion into politics. For the reactionary right, it has always been the wrong brand of politics.

The council has its faults, as does any bureaucracy. The Reader's Digest and "60 Minutes" attacks ignored the larger issue of what the proper function of the church in society is. Instead, they supported the function of the IRD, an upstart conservative faction bent on smearing its opponents. Its grumblings about the council's replacement of "revolution for religion" are absurd, unless feeding, housing and educating the world's poor are revolutionary deeds.