The religious community "must stop the nation from beating plowshares into swords," the Rev. Dr. Joseph L. Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) told students, faculty and community leaders at Wesley Theological Seminary here this week.

Warning that government leaders are exhibiting "less and less reluctance to use force," the Atlanta clergyman declared, "We must not leave the struggle for peace to those outside the church . . . . The church must lead that struggle."

Lowery spoke both as a civil rights leader and as pastor of Central United Methodist Church in Atlanta in delivering the 15th annual Martin Luther King Jr. lecture Tuesday at the United Methodist seminary here.

Lowery, who had joined the slain civil rights leader in founding the SCLC, noted that King's fight for racial equality was closely linked to peace efforts. The same linkage must continue today, he said.

"We can't deal with jobs and justice without dealing with peace. We've come to understand that. That's why black folks need to be involved in public policy," he said.

"Militarism is often the hammer which drives the nail of racism into the body politic."

He recalled King's historic 1967 speech at Riverside Church in New York, in which "he spoke out against the Vietnamese war," said Lowery. "He was severely rebuked by his compatriots."

History repeated itself in 1979, Lowery added, when he "got the same rebuke" for accepting the invitation of Yasser Arafat to visit Palestine Liberation Organization leaders then in Lebanon.

Lowery said he tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade Arafat to lay down his arms and adopt nonviolent measures to resolve the Middle East conflict -- joking that he invited the PLO leader to "join us in a march toward the Israeli border singing, 'We Are Bound for the Promised Land.' "

He maintained that Arafat had agreed to see him and other black leaders "because of what we represented in terms of the black experience . . . . We'd been where the Palestinians are -- down in the valley, 'where you couldn't hear nobody pray,' " in the words of the spiritual.

"That's why we need more black folks in the State Department, because we carry a universality," Lowery said. Yet the State Department, he charged, "is the most segregated federal agency today . . . . It needs to be inclusive."

That 1979 visit of Lowery and other U.S. black leaders created widespread controversy that resulted in the resignation of Andrew Young as ambassador to the United Nations.

A master of the informal preaching style that clothes a serious message in witty social commentary and self-deprecatory humor, Lowery avoided partisan politics for the most part. But appearing the day after record cold had driven President Reagan's second inauguration indoors, Lowery, an outspoken critic of many of the administration's policies, couldn't resist a little political jab.

"I'm sorry you all had to miss the parade," he said, but under the circumstances, "I thought that was one of the saner decisions of the administration."

Again and again Lowery insisted that the church "must lead the struggle for peace . . . . We must not leave the struggle for peace to those outside the church. Peace is our byword; peace is our theology."

He spoke of visiting a town in southern Italy, where farms and orchards were being "ripped out and covered over with concrete" to build a U.S. missile base.

"Not only are we not beating swords into plowshares; we're beating plowshares into swords," he said.

The church, "as a community of faith, must stop the nations from beating plowshares into swords."

Lowery spoke of visiting Nicaragua. "They tell me the Sandinistas are violating human rights," he said. "I'm sure they are. They're only 5 years old; we're over 200 years old and we're still violating human rights." But in talking with people in the villages, he said, he discovered that many people spend weekends in military training. "I'm sure there are some violations of human rights," he reiterated, "but I can't conceive of a government giving arms to those whose human rights they trample on."

He called on the religious community of this country to "challenge the nation's bellicose policy in Central America which will not work.

"Why should we engage in such policies that drive people to seek friends thousands of miles away, when we are right next door? Our love and respect for human dignity should so attract them that they need not turn to other shores to find their place in the sun."