The PTL ministry, shaken for months by scandal and a fierce "holy war" over its destiny, suffered what could be its most serious blow yesterday when Chairman Jerry Falwell and the full board of directors submitted their resignations to a federal bankruptcy judge.

The sudden retreat -- announced on yesterday's "PTL Club" program -- was triggered by Judge Rufus Reynolds' ruling on Wednesday that permitted a competing financial plan by allies of defrocked televangelist Jim Bakker to be submitted to the court.

Falwell said the decision could lead to the return of Bakker -- who, he said, had created "the Watergate of evangelical Christianity."

The move stunned PTL's 1,200 employes at the sprawling Heritage USA complex in Fort Mill, S.C., and left the future of the ministry's diverse assets -- including its satellite network and Christian theme park -- more confused than ever. Late yesterday, Falwell indicated he had been asked to reconsider, but a top PTL executive said late last night that that was unlikely unless the ministry's creditors dropped their demands. PTL officials and opposition lawyers are scheduled to meet today at an undisclosed location in Charlotte, N.C., the official said.

Hours after the Falwell action, Bakker called a press conference at his mountaintop retreat in Gatlinburg, Tenn., to announce that he is "ready to go anywhere at any time to help restore and rescue our baby."

One of Bakker's lawyers, Jim Toms, said later that the couple "could help raise funds" for a new and more sympathetic PTL management, but that the Bakkers would return to ministry leadership only if asked by the bankruptcy court. Such a move, many observers said, seemed unlikely given that the Bakkers are currently the subjects of a federal grand jury investigation into allegations that the couple diverted millions of dollars in charitable contributions to PTL in order to support a lavish life style and high salaries for themselves.

Bakker, however, sounded sorely tempted: "I'd think that if my child had a need, I'd call the mother and father to help with that need," he said when asked if he was the best person to run PTL.

Falwell, who also announced the resignations of PTL President Jerry Nims and Chief Operating Officer Harry Hargrave, said during a morning press conference: "In good conscience, the 10 members of the board of PTL cannot sit on a board that could have the slightest potential for the return of Jim Bakker . . . I hope that integrity will prevail over greed and no one . . . will allow this ministry to ever become what it once was -- probably the greatest scab and cancer on the face of Christianity in 2,000 years of church history."

In a move to thwart a Bakker comeback, Falwell's board, in its last act, reinstated a clause in the PTL bylaws that would give the ministry to the Assemblies of God -- the denomination that defrocked Bakker. An Assemblies spokeswoman said yesterday that the denomination was not consulted about the move and was not prepared to comment on what it might do.

The act that precipitated yesterday's developments was a seemingly routine ruling by Reynolds permitting a coalition of creditors and PTL "partners," or contributors, to prepare a competing reorganization plan to the one submitted last week by Falwell's managers. PTL filed for reorganization under the federal bankruptcy laws last June, claiming that it was unable to pay debts totaling $69 million to 1,400 creditors.

The Falwell plan called for dividing the tax-exempt ministry into nonprofit and for-profit entities and turning more than 2,000 acres of prime real estate surrounding the PTL campus into apartment complexes, office parks and a golf course.

But the rival group, which consisted of Bakker allies, including PTL's largest creditor, church builder Roe Messner, drafted a plan giving itself four seats on the Falwell-controlled PTL board. Even the possibility of a return of the "Bakkerites," Falwell said, made it impossible for him to continue fund raising. It also prompted a "major Wall Street firm" to cut off negotiations for a prospective $100 million loan to the cash-strapped ministry, he said.

Bakker turned over the ministry to Falwell last March after confessing to adultery with a former church secretary, Jessica Hahn, and the payment of hush money to silence her. When he took over, Falwell said yesterday, one of his prime goals "was to be sure that never again would Mr. Bakker or someone like him sit in this chair and rape the American people."

PTL General Counsel Norman Roy Grutman called the Reynolds ruling improper and, according to Falwell, urged the board to allow him to appeal it. But Falwell and top aides, particularly Nims, wanted to throw in the towel because they believed Reynolds was biased against them, according to ministry officials.

"We're willing to fight Mr. Bakker . . . and all the thugs," Falwell said. "We're not willing to fight the federal judiciary."

Some bankruptcy lawyers disputed Falwell's contention that Reynolds' ruling was "illegal," noting that under a 1978 revision to the federal bankruptcy code it was not unusual for judges to allow creditors to file competing reorganization plans.

"You do have competing plans when the judge feels that management is ignoring the role the creditors ought to have and giving disproportionate voice to some other group," John R. Blinn, a Forth Worth bankruptcy lawyer and past president of the Association of Former Bankruptcy Judges, said yesterday.

Reynolds, contacted at his home yesterday, declined to comment on Falwell's charges, but confirmed that he soon expects to approve the appointment of a trustee to run PTL. "We're going to do whatever is necessary to keep it {PTL} going," he said. "We're not going to let something go to waste."

But some church leaders doubted whether the ministry could survive for more than a few weeks without a strong charismatic figure, like a Falwell or Bakker, to raise money. "This kind of ministry depends on a key figure -- you have to have a Johnny Carson type on the air," said Forrest Montgomery, counsel for the National Association of Evangelicals.

"If they don't find someone chosen of God, literally anointed of God for its leadership, then it doesn't have a future, except to become another amusement park," said Texas evangelist James Robison, a frequent guest in Bakker's era.

Falwell's retreat brought tears and a standing ovation for the Moral Majority founder when he appeared before hundreds of staffers huddled in a giant auditorium at Heritage Village USA called "the barn."

As tourists milled around the resort's Victorian shopping mall last night, many had the same question: What would happen to PTL? "Tell me something positive," said an older man who accompanied his wife to the PTL members' booth.

Falwell asked the staff to stay on as long as possible, despite a payroll shortage that would mean no paychecks today for most.

"This absolutely tears us up," said Bob Whyley, the $39,000-a-year network audio director whose wife also works for the ministry. Whyley said he would try to hang in at least until Tuesday, when Falwell hopes the judge will offer new leadership.

"If Bakker comes back, I go down the road," said Rev. Sam Johnson, the pastor of Heritage Village church, who resigned as a board member but agreed to stay on as ministry's spiritual leader.

Some in the evangelical community were not surprised at yesterday's developments, saying that Falwell, a fundamentalist Baptist, was destined to fail in his marriage with a charismatic ministry. Robison said, "Dr. Falwell was not chosen or anointed for that role. He would have been better suited to try to influence the Bork situation. That's his arena, and the PTL was not his arena."

But others disagreed. Chattanooga, Tenn., evangelist John Ankerberg said of Falwell, "The man has really worked hard to pull it out and he has paid a price. He has been hurt in his own support . . . He went through the tough months and now there's a chance they'll actually bring Bakker back. It's obviously been a nightmare for him."

Staff writers Laura Sessions Stepp in Fort Mill, S.C., and Jeffrey A. Frank contributed to this report.