ATLANTA — A minister jailed for ordering children in his congregation to be whipped "because the Bible allows it" has focused renewed attention on corporal punishment, an issue that is as old and as controversial as scripture itself.

Though spanking and harsher forms of physical discipline have been part of American culture for centuries, the debate over whether adults should have the right to strike a child has created tension between those who firmly believe in its benefits and those who consider it abuse.

Nowhere has the issue been more volatile than in the South, where corporal punishment is deeply rooted in fundamental Christian values and is practiced openly by parents anywhere a child might become unruly, from the grocery store to the playground.

While the law says that no one has the right to physically harm another person, most states give parents wide latitude when it comes to discipline.

The case involving Rev. Arthur Allen Jr., pastor of the House of Prayer in Atlanta, authorities said, is one in which authority was clearly abused. Allen, 68, was charged last week with cruelty to children for ordering the whippings of two young church members because they had been unruly in school.

Police testified at a hearing Wednesday that the two boys were whipped at the direction of Allen, and that children were suspended by their hands and arms and beaten with switches, sticks or belts as punishment.

Authorities removed 42 children ranging in age from 5 months to 17 years from the church and their parents' custody after investigators learned of the alleged abuse. Six church members also were charged and additional charges are pending involving other children.

Allen, who authorities said exerts tremendous influence over his congregation, also has come under fire for approving marriages for girls as young as 14, which is illegal in Georgia.

Allen, who served 20 days in jail in 1993 after ordering church members to beat a 16-year-old girl, acknowledged that he instructs parents to whip unruly children and that he has no plans to discontinue such corporal punishment at his 130-member church.

"The Bible says, 'Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beat him with the rod, he shall not die,' " Allen said, quoting scripture that he said gives parents the right to use corporal punishment. "We use this as a last resort when everything else fails. It's not something we do on a regular basis."

Irwin Hyman, a professor of school psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia, said corporal punishment is most common in the United States and Canada. The United States, he said, "has the highest rate of spanking, leaving more bruises and welts than any other country we studied."

Although the number of parents who use corporal punishment on children over age 12 has decreased dramatically, an overwhelming majority of them continue to spank toddlers, according to Murray Straus, a professor of sociology and director of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire. In Straus' most recent study, conducted in 1995, 94 percent of parents reported using corporal punishment at least once with toddlers, a figure that was relatively unchanged since the first study two decades earlier.

The research also indicated that parents often will spank their children, even if they don't approve of such forms of discipline. But attitudes may be changing: When asked if they agree that it is sometimes necessary to give a child a good hard spanking, 55 percent of the parents said yes, compared to 94 percent who answered yes before.

"Everybody spanks toddlers, in part, because the recidivism rate for whatever crime a toddler commits is about 80 percent, sometimes in one day," said Straus, author of the book, "Beating the Devil Out of Them." "The parent might get some immediate gratification with spanking, but it is no more effective than any other form of discipline, including time out or explaining to a child. The key is persistence. With toddlers, it takes many repetitions, but the child will eventually learn."

Research also points to long-term negative effects of corporal punishment, which can include depression, violence, bullying and low self-esteem.

While most states ban corporal punishment in day-care centers, family day care, group homes or institutions, and in family foster care, only 27 states have banned physical punishment in public schools. It remains legal in almost every Southern state to whip children in school, though many school districts have prohibited such practices. In Illinois, corporal punishment is forbidden by law in schools and every form of child care.

But for parents, it's another matter.

"There is no statewide law that forbids parents from spanking their children, but there are civil laws that do forbid excessive corporal punishment. That means where children are hit hard enough to cause welts, bruises or abrasions on the child," said John Goad, associate deputy director of the Cook County, Ill., Child Protective Services. "We consider kids under 6 to be very vulnerable and any mark would be excessive punishment to an infant. But if your kid is fussing and you're in a store and you swat the kid on the bottom a couple of times, we don't consider that abuse. You would have to do something much more serious before we get involved."

In a case such as the allegations involving Allen's Atlanta church, religion or any other reason given for the abuse would not hold up in court, according to Robert Tsai, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union in Georgia.

"In general, people have the First Amendment right to practice their faith as they like, but there are limits. The major one is that it doesn't harm another person. So when you are accused of harming another person by your conduct in following your faith, case law has pretty well established that there is no religious defense," Tsai said.

The religious foundation of corporal punishment is rooted in the Old Testament, largely from the Book of Proverbs where King Solomon said, "He that spares a rod, hates his son," according to some theologians. But even within the fundamentalist Christian movement, there is division over whether the Bible encourages corporal punishment.

"We interpret Scripture to fit what we need when it comes to this. So when evangelicals say that this is what the Bible tells us, part of what they are doing is figuring out how Scripture can justify this form of discipline that we have gotten used to," said Amy Laura Hall, a professor of theological ethics at Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C.