"There we sit in the same church while outside Christian policemen and soldiers are beating up and killing Christian children and torturing Christian prisoners to death, while yet other Christians stand by and weakly plead for peace."

That observation was made by a predominantly black group of 151 clergymen and theologians from a range of Christian denominations in a call last week for a "theology of liberation" in South Africa. The statement pinpoints a cleavage in the interpretation of faith between the two sides of this racially divided but uniformly religious country that many outsiders find puzzling.

Perhaps only in Poland are the themes of faith and rebellion so closely interwoven in the history, with clergymen playing such important political roles.

The difference is that in South Africa this is true of both adversaries in the conflict, the majority black nationalists, who feel themselves to be oppressed, as well as the minority white Afrikaner nationalists, who control the government.

Both invoke the Christian faith to justify their cause. It lends to the present deadly conflict between white authority and black rebels in the segregated townships the elements of a theological civil war.

To the blacks, as packed township congregations hear their ministers preach it every Sunday, God is unequivocally on the side of the oppressed, which gives a divine sanction and the inevitability of eventual success to their struggle against the apartheid system of white-minority rule.

Last week's "theology of liberation" call is a major new step in the conflict, observers say, because it gives a theological legitimacy to the attitudes and actions of black militants and is likely to become a model for the preachings of thousands of black clergymen in the townships, which have been wracked by violence over the past 14 months.

For the Afrikaner community, as its equally packed Dutch Reformed Church congregations hear it expressed, the repeated references in the Gospels to the existence of separate nations, right up to the end of time in the Book of Revelations, constitutes biblical approval of the right of a volk, or people, like the Afrikaners to prevent their small nation from being swamped by the black majority.

The preservation of the Afrikaner nation is further justified by portraying the forces attempting to overthrow or absorb it as agents of atheistic communism. From the Afrikaner side, too, the struggle thus acquires the elements of a holy war.

Given this theological overlay to the South African political conflict, it is hardly surprising that many of the major political spokesmen on both sides have been clergymen: Daniel Malan, a Dutch Reformed Church pastor who led the Afrikaner National Party to power 37 years ago, and Andries Treurnicht, leader of the far right Conservative Party today; Bishop Desmond Tutu and the Rev. Allan Boesak on the other side.

Even the African National Congress, which the government equates with terrorism and communism, has a Christian base. South African businessmen who met with the congress' leaders in Zambia two weeks ago were startled when its president, Oliver Tambo, insisted on saying grace before lunch.

Tambo, like many of the congress' founders and early leaders, was the product of a missionary school. Before he took over the leadership of the exiled movement he had hoped to become an Anglican priest.

Albert Luthuli, the ANC leader who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1961, was a Methodist lay preacher who died in 1967. "I am in the congress precisely because I am a Christian," he wrote in his autobiography.

Nelson Mandela, the putative leader now serving life imprisonment, regularly receives Holy Communion, and his prison pastor, the Rev. Dudley Moore, portrayed him in a letter to a South African newspaper this week as a man of deep faith.

Two of the closest associates of black consciousness leader Steven Biko, who himself discoursed on black theology, sought to become Anglican priests after he met a violent death in the custody of the security police eight years ago.

In the townships, too, it is often the black clergymen who provide the local leadership, forming a network of organizations similar to Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

As an example, the key organization in a group of six townships south of Johannesburg, where the current wave of conflict began 14 months ago, is an interdenominational group known as the Vaal Ministers Solidarity Committee. Two of its key members have been detained under the security laws for more than a year.

In the white community, the initiation ceremony for the powerful Afrikaner Broederbond secret society features a vow made on the Bible in a darkened room, in which the new member must swear before God to keep faith with the volk and its national aspiration. All Afrikaner members of the Cabinet belong to the Broederbond, and a former chairman, Gerrit Viljoen, is a likely successor to President Pieter W. Botha.

The far rightists, meanwhile, have formed their own version of the society, called the Afrikaner Volkswag, headed by Carel Boshoff, a professor of theology at Pretoria University. Boshoff was chairman of the Broederbond until he left it last year to form the Volkswag -- an Afrikaans word meaning defenders of the volk.

In this context, the statement that the mostly black group of theologians and clergy issued last week propounding a "prophetic theology of liberation" is seen as a key development.

The group, which also included whites and some members of mixed race known as Coloreds, began as a general discussion of the country's troubles in July in Soweto township.

The statement they ultimately issued is called the Kairos Document, derived from a Greek word meaning the moment of truth. It sets out to demolish what it calls the "state theology" of the ruling Afrikaners, as well as the "church theology" of Pretoria's moderate opponents, as represented by the churches of the English-speaking community, who number about 40 percent of the white minority.

It then spells out its "prophetic theology" and the action this implies.

The document is marginally to the left of nonwhite church leaders like Tutu and Boesak, whose relative moderation and restraining influence is in danger of being swamped by the rising tide of anger in the townships.

"I am in agreement with the broad outline," Tutu said in an interview. "I am with them maybe 90 percent of the way. But I am unhappy about a few things."

Among them is the document's tone, which Tutu feels is "unnecessarily abrasive."

But then, in an afterthought, the Nobel laureate indicated his understanding, if not his sharing, of the angry mood behind this tone by observing that "the prophets, I suppose, were not noted for their delicate language."

A more serious disagreement is over the hard line of the Kairos authors in suggesting that it is wrong for the established churches to preach reconciliation in the present circumstances of South Africa, because, they say, there can be no reconciliation between justice and injustice, good and evil. There can only be a taking of sides.

The document expresses exactly the sentiments of the young militants in the townships, and their growing differences with Tutu over his willingness to intercede with the authorities and his attempts to restrain them from vengeance on blacks they regard as "collaborators" with the apartheid regime.

"I think the Kairos document's discussion of reconciliation is not fair to the biblical position," Tutu said. "One must never forget that when one talks about reconciliation one is not talking about positions but about people. Reconciliation is a very personal thing."

As Tutu sees it, there is a biblical injuction to seek reconciliation, even if the prospects of success are remote. This is why he recently angered many black activists by seeking an interview, which was refused, with President Botha. "The biblical paradigm is that Moses goes to see Pharoah even when God has told him that Pharoah is not going to listen," Tutu said.

In taking a harder line, the Kairos clergymen are almost certainly closer to the mood of the township militants, the observers say, giving the document its importance.

The "state theology" employed by the apartheid regime misuses Christian belief and biblical texts to justify oppression, the document argues. Such theology is selective, in employing almost solely the Apostle Paul's view of the state as a power "ordained of God" and commanding obedience.

The regime also elevates the concept of "law and order" above morality, the document states.

"In the present crisis, state theology has tried to reestablish the status quo of orderly discrimination, exploitation and oppression by appealing to the consciences of its citizens in the name of law and order," the Kairos paper adds.

It observes that the state makes liberal use of the name of God -- military chaplains to encourage the Defense Force, police chaplains to strengthen policemen, Cabinet ministers in their political pronouncements, and lawmakers in writing the preamble to the country's Constitution.

"This God is an idol," the document says. "It is as mischievous, sinister and evil as the idols that the prophets of Israel had to contend with. Here we have a God who is historically on the side of the white settlers, who dispossesses black people of their land and who gives the major part of the land to his 'chosen people.'

"It is the God of the Casspirs and hippos police vehicles , the God of tear gas and rubber bullets, sjamboks horsewhips , prison cells and death sentences. Here is a God who exalts the proud and humbles the poor, the very opposite of the God of the Bible."

The criticism of "church theology," somewhat less stinging, chides the established churches for confining themselves to a "spiritual" approach to oppression, addressing themselves to the "conscience and good will of those responsible for oppression" while knowing that this will be ineffective.

"To be truly biblical," the statement declares, "our church leaders must adopt a theology of direct confrontation with the forces of evil rather than a theology of reconciliation with sin and the devil."

The steps the Kairos group suggests toward a "prophetic theology" are based on a sociopolitical analysis that rejects the idea that the South African conflict is simply a race war.

"The racial component is there but we are not dealing with two equal races or nations, each with its own selfish group interests," the clergymen assert. "The conflict is between an oppressor and the oppressed. The conflict is between two irreconcilable causes or interests in which the one is just and the other is unjust."

Faced with this, Christians are under a biblical injunction to side with the just. No compromise is possible, it argues.

Saying the apartheid system constitutes a tyranny because it is mandated to govern only in the interests of the white minority and not "the common good of all the people," the black theologians contend that the South African government therefore has no "moral legitimacy."

In accordance with Christian tradition, they claim this gives the people the right to resist and to find the means to protect their own interests.

"Christians . . . must participate in the struggle for liberation and for a just society," the statement says. "The campaigns of the people, from consumer boycotts to stay-aways, need to be supported and encouraged by the church. In other words the present crisis challenges the whole church to move beyond a mere 'ambulance ministry' to a ministry of involvement and participation."

Expressing an Afrikaner nationalist's view of the black theologians' document in an interview last week, Boshoff said he agreed that God looked with sympathy upon the oppressed, but that did not entitle them to act wrongfully.

The church could not condone rebellion against a government, however tyrannical it might be, the Afrikaner professor contended. It was up to the people in such circumstances to negotiate with the established authority.

People were justified in taking up arms only if their state was threatened or under foreign occupation. This meant the Afrikaner "nation" would be entitled to resist if ever they found themselves under black-majority rule.

It also meant blacks were entitled to resist white domination and demand their own independence in black tribal states, but not that they could take up arms to claim majority domination over South Africa as a whole, the Afrikaner theologian added.