A pantheon of American televangelism yesterday appeared before members of a House subcommittee to defend their sometimes controversial fund-raising tactics and express concerns that Congress may be overreacting to the PTL scandal by meddling in religious affairs.

"For the first time in the history of this nation, we're finding the Congress of the United States investigating churches," complained the Rev. D. James Kennedy, head of the $15-million-a-year Florida-based Coral Ridge Ministries, before the House Ways and Means subcommittee on oversight. "I think this is an extremely dangerous precedent. I'm fearful of the camel's nose in the tent."

Kennedy's warnings, as well as a rare Capitol Hill appearance by the Rev. Oral Roberts, helped liven up a hearing called to examine whether tax-exempt television ministries are complying with the federal tax code -- an issue that panel members say was triggered by the disclosure of widespread financial abuses at the PTL ministry under its founders, Jim and Tammy Bakker.

But even as the panel chaired by Rep. J.J. Pickle (D-Tex.) was beginning, the trade group to which most of the TV ministers belong was using the occasion to raise more money.

In a four-page letter obtained by the subcommittee late yesterday, the National Religious Broadcasters, the national association for the TV ministers, decried the Pickle hearings as part of an "insidious" attack by "the liberal element in our society" as well as "the beginning of a new 'inquisition' in which religious broadcasters will be put under the same torturous, unwarranted scrutiny that Oliver North and others have endured for lo these many months."

The letter, signed by NRB Executive Director Ben Armstrong, asked for contributions to a proposed $1 million "warchest," called the NRB Defense Fund, to defend the right of TV ministries to use the airwaves. Each $25 contributor to the fund is promised an audio cassette featuring speeches by Vice President George Bush and Louisiana-based televangelist Jimmy Swaggart.

Attached to the letter was a copy of Pickle's invitation to yesterday's hearing -- an invitation also turned down by the Bakkers, as well as Swaggart and Republican presidential candidate Pat Robertson.

The letter drew an angry rebuke from Pickle, who only hours earlier had gone to great lengths to reassure Armstrong and the televangelists of his motives -- insisting he was not out to pore over their books, much less kick them off the airwaves. He called the letter a "fear tactic," adding that Armstrong had not expressed any such concerns in a private meeting six weeks ago or in his own testimony late yesterday.

"They're using an official congressional letter to arouse fear and distrust among their subscribers -- and I resent that," said Pickle. "It seems to be an improper way to raise money." Armstrong could not be reached for comment late yesterday.

The tempest over the letter came after many of the country's leading televangelists, including Roberts and the Rev. Jerry Falwell, sought to reassure the subcommittee about the purity of their finances and fund-raising tactics. At the same time, subcommittee members pressed the witnesses about some of their methods, asking Falwell, for example, about reports he "diverted" religious contributions to his Moral Majority political organization -- a charge he heatedly denied.

"I think that people at the end of these fund-raising appeals {by TV ministers} need to know what their money is being used for -- is it being used for the Lord's work or is it being used to buy a million-dollar house?" said Rep. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), a subcommittee member who pressed for tighter scrutiny of the ministers.

The question that seemed to bedevil the subcommittee and divide the ministers themselves was how to police the ministries without infringing their First Amendment rights. Pickle said he has no specific legislative proposals to offer as a long-term solution.

But Pickle said yesterday he was surprised to learn from IRS Commissioner Lawrence B. Gibbs, who also testified yesterday, that the IRS has 25 ongoing audits of evangelical organizations. "That almost shocked me there were that many under way," said Pickle, who suggested that the subcommittee's efforts may have prodded the tax agency.

Calling the PTL affair "a major Watergate ... of Christianity," Falwell said he did not object to the subcommittee's holding the hearings. But he and others warned that the panel could run into trouble if some of the ideas for further regulation were implemented. One such proposal discussed yesterday would require churches to file so-called informational tax returns, Form 990s. Currently, none of the country's more than 340,000 churches is required to file anything with the IRS, a legislative protection that Gibbs noted makes it difficult for the agency to know if something is amiss at any particular church.

Most of the televangelists who testified yesterday said their organizations already file such forms voluntarily. But if the subcommittee moves to require such a filing, Falwell warned, it would create a firestorm throughout the evangelical community.

"I think you'll find an uproar that none of us can handle if you pass legislation that compels every church and synagogue in America to file 990s," said Falwell.

Falwell's message was self-regulation, a point he underscored while listening to Kennedy's testimony. The combative Kennedy noted that, while Jim Bakker had been defrocked by his denomination, the Assemblies of God, a member of Congress, Rep. Gerry E. Studds (D-Mass.), was still voting and sitting in the House several years after being censured for having sex with a teen-age male page.

"Amen!" cried Falwell. "Good preaching."

Also defending himself yesterday was Oral Roberts, who decried the press for misrepresenting his televised warning earlier this year that he would die if he didn't raise $8 million for a medical school on the campus of Oral Roberts University.

As Roberts recounted the story yesterday, the medical school was in trouble in early 1986 when the Lord spoke to him and "gave me a year to turn the medical school around." The Lord never mentioned a figure, Roberts said, but $8 million was what it would cost to accomplish what was needed.

"The Lord told me to turn the medical school around or He was going to call me home -- my time on Earth was over," said Roberts. "They {the media} were saying God was going to kill me. I preach God is a good God ... But being called home is what it's all about. Heaven is my home -- I expect to meet the Lord."